Placing the Ecological Crisis in a Broader Context: The Orphic and the Promethean

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Placing the Ecological Crisis in a Broader Context:

The Orphic and the Promethean


The historical prevalence of Promethean characteristics such as dominion and domination has resulted in a dispensation where exclusive pragmatism and habitual perception have steered human actions in directions that have resulted in an unprecedented ecological crisis. Christianity, reductionist science, pragmatic technology, and capitalism have homogenised discursive arenas, making ecological degradation unavoidable as a consequence of Promethean progress. Mechanisms exist that prevent changes toward ecologically sensitive attitudes from rooting and spreading as remedies to ecologically destructive attitudes. Alternative, Orphic attitudes, theories, and movements do exist and they offer something of a response to Promethean attitudes underpinning the ecological crisis. Permaculture offers a down to earth, context-bound approach to establishing Orphic systems, while philosophy in two specific formats are tools to further broaden the context of the ecological crisis.


positive and negative freedom, shapers of discourse, pragmatism and utilitarianism, permaculture, philosophy in the present, philosophy as a way of life.

In the year 1859 the English philosopher, political economist and civil servant John Stuart Mill saw his book On Liberty published. In it he points out the importance of “experiments of living”:

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them.

Mill’s considered position could not be clearer: if you do not hurt anybody else in your endeavours, then you should be free to think and do whatever you like. This is indeed sums up the concept of ‘negative freedom’ or ‘negative liberty’: “One has negative liberty… when there is an absence of external interferences to one’s doing what one wishes – specifically, when there is an absence of external interferences by other people” (Matt Zwolinski, accessed 2018). Mill was concerned that the ‘tyranny of the majority’ – or rather, that the tyranny of those “who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority” – was eroding people’s freedoms in the negative sense to which I have just drawn attention. Freedom increasingly was becoming ‘positive freedom’, where “one has the opportunity and ability to do what one wishes” (Zwolinski 2018), but where the opportunities are invariably delineated by institutions or organisations such as the state. I must therefore add that one has positive liberty when one has the opportunity and ability to do what has been deemed as acceptable to do by the State or some other institution, organisation, or dominant societal, political, economic or attitudinal force. Mill’s project in On Liberty was partly to situate the broad concepts of liberty and freedom on a spectrum and thereby emphasise that all liberties and freedoms are not equal – for example, that which a person does ‘freely’ under endorsement from a historically dominant institution (such as State, Church, and economically influential entity) is not the same kind of liberty as the freedom to do whatever one pleases and be left alone so long as one does not injure another person.

It is not my intention to become reflectively engaged in the normative ethical activity of asking whether or not positive liberty is preferable to negative liberty. While it is possible to argue on the one hand that negative freedom is the freedom to starve, and on the other hand that ‘freedoms’ endorsed by specific institutions with clear vested interests and agendas are technically no freedoms at all, the answer perhaps lies in the middle of the two extremes, and this topic as ever remains a fertile one for consideration and discussion. For the initial purpose of this paper, however, I would like to ask, to what extent is it possible to exercise freedom in its negative sense in contemporary society? By contemporary society, I mean specifically the advanced, consumer, competitive, Capitalist, industrial, Democratic, dominion-driven dispensation, an acronym for which is ACID, one I have adopted (and slightly adapted) from the ecophilosopher Karl Hoyer (2012) (who attributes it to Sigmund Kvaloy Setreng). Shortly after a person is born, he or she is given an identity number, national security number, national insurance number, or whatever the barcode-like number is called in the country in which a person is born. This number ‘plugs’ one into a socio-political and economic system where invariably fiat currency intermediates almost all activity, and fiat currency is debt-based and inherent to it is the need to pay back the debt created the moment money is issued (Pittaway 2017: 70-78). This is one reason why in ACID a person will never be allowed to exercise negative liberty: there is always a tax-person, a banker, a bureaucrat, an inspector, an auditor, or any of ACID’s henchmen knocking at the door, so to speak, to keep the cogs of a debt-based economy turning – one is never left alone to do as one likes, free from interference by other people, people who generally represent the ‘interests’ of ‘the system’. These interests (of which economic control is only one) are regurgitated in various forms via the corporate-owned mass media, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman remind one in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (2002: 306): the mass media “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”. Various other ‘ACID perpetuation mechanisms’ have been the subjects of scrutiny: Mill (1858) saw them in ‘the dangers of Democracy’, various thinkers saw them in the contradiction that is the closed capitalist core of an allegedly open democracy (Ralph Nadar via Manfred B. Steger 2009, James G. Speth 2008, Peter Barnes via Speth 2008, Gar Alperovitz via Speth 2008, Robert McChesney in Chomsky 1999); Herbert Marcuse (1972) saw them in the expansion of an homogenising one-dimensionality of what he called Advanced Industrial Society (or AIS, which denotes something very similar to ACID), Gilles Deleuze (1992) in disciplinary societies and societies of control, and Thomas Princen (2010) in what he calls ‘traffic control measures’. These Acid perpetuation mechanisms are aspects of a system that forces upon a person a narrow positive freedom but marginalises chances of exercising negative freedom.

When discussing the topic of the debt-based economic system I referred to above, interlocutors have often responded in defence of the system by saying that it works, that despite imperfections it is the best system human beings have managed to construct after centuries of ‘progress’ through previous forms of economic activity. They point out that the technology I use, for example the computer I used to type this paper, is all a product of the system and that I should be grateful for it all. Strange then that the imperatives accompanying ACID – expand, consume, ‘progress’, increase, dominate, compete, accelerate, develop, and so on (Pittaway 2017: 80-102) – have led the human species, as well as the ecosystems constituting most of life on planet Earth, to an unprecedented crisis. John B. Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York (2010:155) explain:

It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Available evidence now strongly suggests that, under a regime of ‘business as usual’ with no substantial lessening of the drivers of environmental destruction, we could be facing within a decade or so a major ‘tipping point,’ leading to irrevocable and catastrophic climate change. Other ecological crises — such as species extinction, the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty, desertification, deforestation, air pollution, water shortages and pollution, soil degradation, the imminent peaking of world oil production (creating new geopolitical tensions), and a chronic world food crisis – all point to the fact that the planet as we know it and its ecosystems are stretched to the breaking point. The moment of truth for the earth and human civilization has arrived.

“Business as usual” is the domain of ACID, and Foster, Clark and York have identified it as being instrumental in causing the ecological destruction. Considering that business as usual in ACID is quantitatively represented by indices such as GDP, one can again see the link between the business as usual of ACID and ecological destruction in these observations from Joel Kovel (2002: 48):

Capital employs purely quantitative indices such as gross domestic product (GDP) because they are convenient indices of accumulation. Scarcely a critic of the ecological crisis has refrained from commenting upon the stupid brutality of this number, which reduces the living and the dead alike to the common denominator of what can be extracted from their commodification. It is necessary, though, to see thinking in terms of GDP as no mere error, but the actual logic of the reigning power.

Clearly, then, some interlocutors have very narrow definitions in mind when they claim that the contemporary globalised economic system ‘works’ and is ‘the best’ system human beings have been able to create. The computer they tell me to be grateful for, they may not realise, is designed to break after a specific period of time (as is the case with all products of technology made for mass consumption) so that the corporation that produced it can continue accruing massive profits (and also ‘play its part’ in keeping the cogs of the economy turning). This is known as planned obsolescence (Pittaway 2017: 161), something that engineers and scientists are employed to ‘perfect’ despite the obscene ecological impact of a world full of Technology-designed-to-break all the time for the sake of (debt-based) economic activity. Planned obsolescence is typical of the obscene ecological impacts of several large-scale industries now found all over the world and which seem inseparable from the broadly-accepted notions of ‘development’ and ‘democracy’. This links back to what I have said about system-endorsed positive ‘freedoms’, specifically that they are exclusively prescribed by a dominant institution: in the broader context of ACID, freedom is the positive freedom to develop, as Inge Konik (2015: 15-16) points out via Wolfgang Sachs:

…Truman promoted ever increasing production and technological advancement as key to the well-being of all nations, regardless of their economic, political, social and cultural differences, nuances, and dreams. Sachs holds that this was the first time that a “world view” was prescribed in which “all the peoples of the earth were to move along the same track and aspire to only one goal – development”.

The development of ACID and economic growth go hand in hand. Economic growth is measured in numbers that increase as the money supply does, numbers such as the GDP index, but in a debt-based fiat currency (i.e. the currency of ACID), as the money supply is increased, so is global debt. Inherent to this phenomenon is an obligation to pay money back (which requires more money expansion/creation, entailing more debt), hence constant expansion of the lucrative industrial activity that has been equated with progress in ACID. This kind of industrial ‘progress’ comes in many forms, for examples, the fossil-fuel industry, the agricultural industry, the meat and fish industries, and so on (see Pittaway 2017: 47-79 for some of the anthropic causes of the ecological crisis), all of which have had devastating consequences for the ecology of the planet. The 2017 Oxfam report on global inequality called ‘An economy of the 99%’ clearly states the consequence of this link between the economic model I have described and the ecological consequences: “Our economic model is based on exploiting our environment and ignoring the limits of what our planet can bear”. Indeed, ecological exploitation must occur for the ‘progress’ and development of this type of economy, a claim substantiated by the simple fact that ecological exploitation continues to accelerate alongside the now global imperative to ‘progress’, grow and develop as per the economic model of ACID. Environmental and political author and activist, George Monibot (2017), of offers support for my contention here with the following: “Growth must go on – it’s the political imperative everywhere, and it’s destroying the Earth. But there’s no way of greening it…”. Founder and president of the Living Economies Forum, David Korsten (2016), adds: “Contrary to the promises of politicians and economists, this growth is not eliminating poverty and creating a better life for all. It is instead creating increasingly grotesque and unsustainable imbalances in our relationship to Earth and to each other.” Considering the opening reference to Mill’s observation about the need for “experiments of living”, wherein he commented that “modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them”, the ecological crisis is perhaps a wake-up call that ACID is a failed experiment which has jeopardised the well-being of the natural systems on which life depends for survival.

Mill’s On Liberty was published the year 1859. It is perhaps an eerie coincidence that in the same year the first commercial oil well went into production in Titusville, Pennsylvania, USA. The world’s population of human beings at that time was one billion. Commercial oil provided the means by which human beings would multiply their population seven-fold in an evolutionary-historical blink of an eye, but it did not provide the motive. The motive can be traced to specific human attitudes, to the kinds of thoughts that human beings entertain about the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world, because what “people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them” (Lynn White Jr. 1967: 11). White identified Christianity, technology, and science as instrumental underpinnings of the attitudes that would after the industrial revolution bring about an anthropological onslaught against nature. I will comment on these ‘shapers of discourse’ in ways the White does not, and I will add capitalism to the list. Christianity, having institutionally dominated the direction of human thought for well over a millennium and having persecuted, oppressed and often obliterated[1] that which was alternative to it, spread the imperative of dominion-over-the-earth, widely eliminating alternative approaches to living and thereby starting the first of the homogenisation projects in the history of Western-dominated civilisation, which via globalisation is now the bulk of human civilisation. Reductionist science continued the project of spreading the dominion imperative, even though eventually it would abandon the notion of God. René Descartes, for example, anticipating the flavour of scientific inquiry as it would develop out of the period of Christian domination, writes in his 1637 Discourse on Method (1972: 119) that he looks forward to the time when the new science will render humans “masters and possessors of nature” – unsurprisingly, Descartes was a devout Christian. Francis Bacon, a figurehead in the scientific arena who happened also to express Christian sentiments, stated that the “secrets of nature are better revealed under the torture of experiments than when they follow their natural course” (Pierre Hadot 2008: 93). In light of these and other similar scientific sentiments, Hadot (2008: 123) states the following:

What we must say, I think, is that with Francis Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, a definitive break… may have taken place, and these scholars discovered the means of progressing in a decisive and definitive way in this project of dominating nature, limiting themselves to the rigorous analysis of what is measurable and quantifiable in sensible phenomena.

Alongside Christianity and science one can place technology and capitalism (which were commented on earlier) as central in the project of delineating the scope of ecologically deleterious positive freedoms available to a citizen of ACID. Christianity, reductionist science, technology and capitalism are ‘shapers of discourse’ that have spread ecologically-problematic attitudes across the globe, attitudes that have ‘steered’ human actions that result in ecologically-problematic outcomes – this is not to say that these shapers of discourse are solely responsible for motivating ecologically problematic human actions, but they are the historically dominant ‘drivers’ of attitudes that have influenced human action over the course of Western history. Regarding technology in ACID, the creation and use of technology are intimately connected with the scientific focus on “what is measurable and quantifiable in sensible phenomena” (Hadot, Ibid) as per the use of instrumental reason identified by Max Horkheimer (1947). Instrumental reason can be thought of as the application of reason for purely and exclusively technical-pragmatic purposes. Horkheimer (2002: 104) does offer a glimpse of the relevance of the pragmatic and instrumental attitude in the context of the ecological crisis: “Modern insensitivity to nature is indeed only a variation of the pragmatic attitude that is typical of Western civilization as a whole”. Martin Heidegger’s analysis of technology (1943) as something essentially entangled with the process of ‘Enframing’ reveals a coterminous attitude toward nature, where nature is reduced to nothing but a ‘standing reserve’ of resources for human use.

The constituents of the ecological crisis (Pittaway 2017: 31-46), the direct physical causes of the crisis (Pittaway 2017: 47-79), the attitudinal causes of the crisis (Pittaway 2017: 80-102), and the perpetuation mechanisms that prevent much needed social change (Pittaway 2017: 103-127) in the direction of ecological sustainability, all constitute an unprecedented problem facing human beings, as well as the countless forms of life that are destroyed in the wake of ACID’s modus operandi. The focal areas of this paper so far depict a dispensation in which the possibility of conducting ‘experiments of living’ is marginal, even negligible, because dominant shapers of discourse paved the way for a global platform characterised by socio-political and economic homogeneity that dictates the extent and limits of ‘freedom’. To be sure, this is a very confined, limited and narrow form of positive freedom – a person will not be left alone, free from interference from other people in this system. Furthermore, this almost all-encompassing system, ACID, which is partly a result of certain problematic attitudes toward nature and simultaneously a perpetuator of those attitudes, is a disaster for the ecology of the planet. Keeping in mind the notions that ACID is perpetuated by various mechanisms, and accordingly that alternatives to ACID (or experiments of living) are thereby marginalised or negated, consider very broadly the philosophical notion of the dialectical process. For my purposes, I will describe a dialectical process very simply (in broadly Hegelian terms) as a process consisting of three parts: a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. A thesis is an idea; in the spirit of simplicity, I will use the example of ‘self’ as a thesis. In this limited example, the antithesis of ‘self’ is ‘other’. A synthesis of the two might be ‘community’. The dialectical process therefore is a model often used to describe how change occurs: change of a concept (self – other – community), a society, or any system. I wish to make only the following point about the dialectical process I have just exemplified: the process requires that the thesis and the antithesis ‘merge’ or ‘combine’ or ‘overlap’ at some point, or else a synthesis cannot be arrived at – in other words, something new cannot emerge. In Hegelian logic the ‘synthesis’ will, in its turn, become a ‘thesis’, and by being ‘negated’ provoke a new antithesis, synthesis, and so on.

It is certainly the case that ‘new things’ have emerged (and continue to emerge) in and from the dispensation of ACID, the system which I have argued is characterised by various traits of the historically-dominant shapers of discourse – Christianity, science, technology, capitalism, and to a lesser extent democracy. But the ‘new things’ to which one is perhaps able to refer are more than likely completely compatible within the confines of consumer capitalism, ‘pragmatic’ technology, and reductionist science – some of the very shapers of discourse that have identified as instrumental in spreading ecologically problematic attitudes. However, I must ask: have any of the dominant system characteristics really changed since the dominion-enforcing reign of Christianity, since the ubiquitous expansion of pragmatic technologies, since the compartmentalising materialism of reductionist science, and since the profit-addiction inherent to capitalism? One might perhaps be able to refer to isolated examples where a considerable change occurred, examples like the end of race-based slavery, or when the right to vote for leaders was granted to all people. However, these remain isolated examples. I have chosen a context of considerable proportions, namely the ecological crisis, as a reminder that systemically nothing has really changed – and by systemically I mean the advanced competitive consumer Capitalist industrial Democratic dominion-‘crazed’ dispensation that continues in the same direction as it has for centuries, albeit at an exponentially accelerated pace – the ecological crisis is a severe reminder of this. The general characteristics of the system remain the same ones that have been ecologically problematic since they became dominant. And, as already pointed out, mechanisms exist that prevent change of the characteristics that I have identified as ecologically problematic.

The relevance of my reference to the dialectical process should now be clear: in ACID, the dialectical process is ‘frozen’ in any large-scale sense via an intricate interconnection of dominant physical and non-physical system components characterised by competition, dominion, utility, and a variety of other characteristics that can be called Promethean (under inspiration from Hadot, 2006). This, of course, is a topic open to discussion and debate, i.e. the topic of the extent to which ‘ACID does dialectic’, so to speak – I clearly espouse support for the view that in any large-scale sense of the concept of dialectic, ACID ‘does not do change’. In Hegelian terms – if these must be adopted – one might say that the system has become so homogenised that any antithesis to a thesis is an antithesis only in name, and that the synthesis (or every synthesis, in succession), has incrementally ‘ironed out’ all genuine antitheses, so that only qualitative homogeneity remains. Or, using the well-known formula for encouraging originality, coined by Edward de Bono (1970), ‘lateral thinking’, in the present encompassing system the only lateral thinking that is tolerated is the kind that does not question the system itself, but merely promises its more efficient operation. In a 2012 BBC interview hosted by Paul Mason, Manuel Castells, author of Rise of the Network Society (2010), offers a glimpse of support for my contention here – that ACID ‘does not do change’ – when he says that “the political institutions are impervious to change”, and of course the political institutions are central in and for ACID. Rosi Braidotti (2013:58) also speaks about the “inertia of established mental habits” in a manner that suggests a stagnation of the dialectical cycle:

I do think that one of the most pointed paradoxes of our era is precisely the tension between the urgency of finding new and alternative modes of political and ethical agency for our technologically mediated world and the inertia of established mental habits on the other.

And Foster, Clark and York refer to a “prevailing hierarchical social order” with a “commitment to stasis in its fundamental social-property relations” (2010:17), a social order where “those on top have a vested interest in blocking fundamental change” (2010:27).

So at a very superficial level it is possible to agree with the broad concept of ‘the end of history’, a concept attributed mainly to Francis Fukuyama – but only in the sense that the concept highlights an ideological goal attributed to the Promethean and its contemporary manifestation as ACID, rather than as an accurate depiction of the normative (or desirable) ‘positive status’ of ACID (let alone the capacity to put an arbitrary stop to the historical process itself) , which Fukuyama (1992) is clearly in favour of:

Writing in the twentieth century, Hegel’s great interpreter, Alexandre Kojève, asserted intransigently that history had ended because what he called the “universal and homogeneous state” – what we can understand as liberal democracy – definitely solved the question of recognition by replacing the relationship of lordship and bondage with universal and equal recognition. What man had been seeking throughout the course of history – what had driven the prior ‘stages of history’ – was recognition. In the modern world, he finally found it, and was ‘completely satisfied.’ This claim was made seriously by Kojève, and it deserves to be taken seriously by us.

Leaving aside the question, whether this interpretation is compatible with Hegel’s own work (which it arguably is not, considering the difference between Hegel’s ‘logic’ and actual history) Fukuyama does indeed take Kojève’s claim seriously, and espouses support for liberal Democracy, which is the political component of ACID, while I do neither of these things due to the inherently problematic characteristics and mechanisms of ACID I have already briefly outlined. Promethean characteristics, qualities, and attitudes result in actions that marginalise alternatives to the Promethean, and also result in the construction of dominant system ‘mechanisms’ that prevent alternatives from arising. Put differently, the Promethean is like a ruthless dictator, whose ‘success’ is attributable to his or her might and dominance (and who accordingly eliminates opposition), rather than like a meritocratic leader who facilitates any kind of promising system-wide change.

I have argued that the dominant characteristics of ACID are ecologically problematic and that mechanisms exist that prevent social and economic change, hence my claim that ACID is something in which the dialectical wheel is prevented from spinning in any real manner. However, just because ACID ‘does not do dialectic’ does not mean that ‘antitheses’ are not available. I use the word antitheses very loosely here; better for my purposes would be the phrase ‘alternatives’. These alternatives are ones characterised by qualities that would clearly be unfamiliar in the broad arenas of ACID. One example is the Occupy Movement that occurred primarily in the years 2011-12, a movement in which attention was drawn to the rule of what was referred to as the one per cent – the one per cent of the world’s population that owns and controls considerable portions of the world’s wealth and uses it to reap massive profits, usually via socially problematic, ethically problematic, and ecologically problematic means. It is clear that some of the characteristics of the movement are entirely different to those common to ACID, something which Noam Chomsky comments on in a 2012 ‘Democracy Now’ interview hosted by Amy Goodman: the movement “spontaneously created something that doesn’t really exist in the country [i.e. the USA]: communities of mutual support, cooperation, open spaces for discussion… just people doing things and helping each other”. This is an important observation in the context of this study: people cooperating and helping each other, i.e. not competing. The movement offers such glimpses of manifestations of alternative attitudes, alternative attitudes I am convinced are ones that need to be paid attention to when addressing the question of what to do in light of the ecological crisis. Broadly, these alternative attitudes are ones I call Orphic (again under inspiration from Hadot, 2006), and some more examples of Orphic attitudes will be offered below.

‘Orphic’ areas of focus, to differing degrees, espouse attitudes that are in contrast to the problematic ones I group under the label ‘Promethean’, and I offer these attitudes as suggestions for further exploration as a ‘response’ in the context of the ecological crisis. A certain indulgence on the part of the reader is generally required here: indulgence in the form of a kind of ‘suspension of disbelief’ regarding some of these ‘suggestions’. Without it, the reader would not, for example, give someone like Graham Hancock (whose important work has, despite some striking recent confirmations by other scientists, been largely sidelined by mainstream scientists), a chance to convince her or him. Hancock (1995, 2015) identifies contemporary civilization as one with amnesia, where what is forgotten is a large and crucial chunk of human history where humankind reached a sophisticated level of civilisation with its own knowledge and technology. Despite its sophistication, the civilisation was unable to survive a cataclysm; but there were some survivors and they initiated megalithic stone building projects to convey to future civilisations some important messages from vast antiquity. The Orphic message is clear here: ACID is not the apex of human history (despite what school and university history classes imply), and furthermore, past advanced civilisations have met their demise, suggesting that ACID is not impervious to collapse despite its status of being ‘advanced’. The question of how to best anticipate cataclysmic events arises, and in the case of ACID, the event appears to be a cascading series of ecological collapses induced by human actions; the answers are perhaps to be found in changes to the relationship between human beings and nature, in a direction away from anthropocentrism and towards biocentrism.

In search of Orphic ‘alternatives’, one can look at ‘older cultures’, cultures like the Kogi, the Ik of Uganda, the Najavo, the Hopi, the Cree, Ojibwa and the San (listed by Thom Hartmann in his ‘Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight‘ (1998:154). They all share the attitude of deeply respecting the interconnection of the human and non-human world, and accordingly see human beings as a reciprocal part of nature. These older cultures “are most often cooperators, not dominators”, and “the anthropological record shows that not one culture believed itself to be separate from and superior to nature” (Ibid). One can look at the ‘unnamed movement’ written about by Paul Hawken in his Blessed Unrest (2007), a movement consisting of between one and two million organisations and groups all working toward justice in various spheres, and though disparate, these organisations and groups share the vision of an ecologically, socially, politically, and economically sustainable dispensation. One can look at a non-reductionist scientific model such as Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance (1991), which proposes that characteristics of a species are shaped by non-physical fields connecting all members of the species rather than purely physical and quantitative genetic processes. One can look at an approach to human economic activity Charles Eisenstein calls ‘sacred economics’ (2011), an approach that is unrecognisable in character, and in social and ecological impact, when compared to the debt-based and growth-focused economic system of contemporary civilisation. One can look at the Zeitgeist Movement,  which is characterised by a strong sense of technological and scientific pragmatism, yet manages to align such pragmatism with sustainable approaches to providing for physical needs in a context of finite ‘resources’. One can look at deep ecology, which has the ecological goal of “the protection of the planet and its richness and diversity of life for its own sake” (Naess 2008: 100). All of these examples of Orphic ‘alternatives’ are explored in considerable detail in my PhD study (Pittaway 2017: 128-170). This article serves in part as a broad summary of the research that constitutes the study.

Clearly lacking in the literature about ecologically sensitive (i.e. Orphic) alternatives is a clear route for transition, and by this I mean a transition from an ecologically problematic dispensation characterised predominantly by Promethean attitudes such as dominion and dominance, to an ecologically sustainable dispensation characterised by Orphic attitudes such as cooperation and interconnection. This is perhaps a common limitation of outlines of systems and ideas alternative to the dominant ones of ACID, and if I were to offer nothing in the form of ‘actionable’ steps toward solutions, then it would be a limitation of this paper as well. However, this is where permaculture becomes an invaluable Orphic addition in the context of the ecological crisis. Permaculture is a design system constituted by twelve design principles, informed by various ecological observations, and motivated by the imperative for human beings to co-exist in a sustainable manner with the non-human world. Considering what I have said about transition, permaculture plays a crucial role because it offers very specific principles that can be applied by an individual, a family, a community, a village, a city, a country… and I dare to suggest even by all the countries constituting the human civilisation. There is, however, no one-size-fits-all way to implement permaculture: in permaculture, every environment is a manifestation of different natural features, and often synthetic features too, that need to be observed, and in which human beings need to interact and make small and slow changes, accepting feedback, valuing the marginal, and so on – these latter clauses are allusions to specific permaculture principles. They are all context specific. Permaculture, I contend, is a context-specific, adaptable, patient, accessible, realistic, down-to-earth, actionable approach to creating Orphic change. It is an embodiment of the awareness of the need to carefully design and construct alternatives to the systems of ACID from the ground up via ecologically respectful means. So when faced with the question of how to transition from ACID to something sustainable and ecologically respectful, the answer is not to be found in something as complicated, idealistic, and perhaps ultimately impotent as voting for a ‘green’ political party (because in practice there is only one party, the business party, as Noam Chomsky once wryly observed in a ‘Newstatesman’ interview hosted by Alyssa McDonald,  2010), but rather in the assembly and use of a compost toilet; in the planting of fruiting trees; in the catching and storing of rain-water; in growing some herbs and edible leaf-crops near the home kitchen; in getting rid of ‘the television’; in purchasing one or two solar panels and one or two deep-cycle batteries and learning how to adapt one’s lighting and (for example) computer-powering needs to this small solar-power setup; in being creative with the ‘waste products’ that usually end up in the bin and making useful items from them; in keeping chickens for the purposes of producing eggs for protein in the diet; in sourcing local fresh produce and meat wherever possible; in learning the edible properties of ‘weeds’ and incorporating ‘weeds’ into one’s diet; and so on. These may seem like small steps, but one need not be part of some bigger social phenomenon, or be rich, or be talented, or well-connected socially, in order to take the steps – and this simplicity is part of what makes permaculture very appealing in the context of the socio-political and economic complications that underpin the ecological crisis. Remembering the opening remarks to this paper about positive and negative freedom, I should point out that permaculture is one of the few arenas in which one can learn how to exercise negative freedom – in the implementation of small, slow, sustainable, synergistic systemic solutions that together add up, with the consequence that the need to depend fully on the homogenised and homogenising systems of ACID is thereby reduced. I am not for a moment suggesting that permaculture can feed the world – perhaps it could, but the world’s seven and a half billion people grew to that number because of the widespread commercialisation of fossil-fuels since the second half of the nineteenth century (when the population of human beings was only one billion), but the fossil-fuel system is now widely acknowledged to be inherently unsustainable – something that uses a finite resource can never exist infinitely, as pointed out by Jared Diamond (2005: 490): “While there has been much discussion about how many big oil and gas fields remain to be discovered, and while coal reserves are believed to be large, the prevalent view is that known and likely reserves of readily accessible oil and natural gas will last for a few more decades”. If something is inherently unsustainable then it must come to an end, so here I draw obvious attention to the question, then what? And this is when permaculture would likely be turned to – but never in a one-size-fits-all manner, as I have already commented – but it need not be the case that the global fossil fuel systems collapse (or the ecologies of the planet collapse in a manner that cripples ‘business as usual’, whichever occurs first) before permaculture becomes incorporated into broader socio-political and economic endeavours. On smaller scales, if one wishes to conduct small ‘experiments of living’, then permaculture is a great place to start, as it offers numerous options to put ecologically sensitive ideas and attitudes into practice and thereby exercise some level of autonomy in the face of the seemingly overwhelming juggernaut that is ACID.

Clearly, a ‘working dichotomy’ has been foregrounded: a dichotomy between ecologically-problematic attitudes and ecologically-respectful attitudes; a dichotomy between the Promethean and the Orphic. The Promethean, due to its characterisation in part by dominance, its focus on having dominion over all of the non-human world, and a variety of other characteristics, has marginalised the Orphic, whose various characteristics have made it easy to be dominated (this is perhaps a criticism of the Orphic). It is with the dichotomy between the Promethean and the Orphic in mind, as well as with the broad context of the ecological crisis, that I turn to philosophical ‘contributions’ that shed important light in context of the ecological crisis. The first is a text called Philosophy in the Present (2009), in which Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek offer their answers to the question of the role of philosophy in the present, and both philosophers make it perfectly clear that philosophy occurs when faced with incommensurability, or in other words, when insurmountable barriers to dialogue are encountered: Žižek explicitly says that philosophy is not a dialogue (2009:50). There is relevance here to the difficulty of ‘dialogue’, or the inherent dichotomy, between Promethean agents and Orphic activists. Other characteristics of philosophy Badiou and Žižek identify are the following: philosophy is the creation of new problems; philosophy is a process of cutting through particulars to reach the universal; philosophy occurs when faced with incommensurability, mutual exclusivity, and paradoxical relations; philosophy is the creation of new problems; philosophy changes the concepts of the debate; philosophy occurs when one lacks the certainty of ‘being at home’, philosophy occurs when faced with internal foreignness, and the breakdown of organic society; philosophy is the Elucidation of choice; philosophy sheds light on the distance between power and truths; philosophy occurs in light of the redefinition of human nature; philosophy is singularity participating in universality; philosophy does not occur in the confines of preconceived ideas of human nature, the confines of humanity as it has been historically constituted, or the confines of the established model of humanity; philosophy occurs alongside the ‘transformation of life’. Each of these focal areas opens up possibilities for insight on various aspects of the ecological crisis (Pittaway 2017: 216-237). For example, “humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined” is a phrase that Badiou (2009: 74-75) uses in the following: “Each time that philosophy confines itself to humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined, it diminishes itself, and in the end suppresses itself. It suppresses itself because its only use becomes that of conserving, spreading and consolidating the established model of humanity”. I have already suggested that various shapers of discourse have dominated historically: the attitudes of domination and dominion partly characterise them, propelling their dominance and dominion, and via their dominance and dominion, they homogenised the historical playing field, resulting in ACID, the Promethean writ large. In other words, the Promethean ‘model of humanity’ is “humanity as it has been historically constituted” (Ibid). And Badiou makes it clear that when philosophy confines itself to, conserves, spreads, or consolidates humanity as it has been historically constituted, it diminishes and suppresses itself. An obvious route, then, toward practicing philosophy in a manner where it is not diminished or suppressed, is to broaden focus and bring (incommensurable, dichotomized) alternatives ‘into the mix’, so to speak. In other words, the historically dominant Promethean may be positioned against the marginalized Orphic. Accordingly, the dialectical wheel can turn properly: the dominant theses of the Promethean will be posed against the ‘antitheses’ (I prefer ‘alternative ideas’) of the Orphic, and synthesis can potentially occur. I therefore contend that this ‘version’ of philosophy can play an important role in any process with the goal of comprehending the problems constituting the ecological crisis, and in seeking potential solutions to it.

The second text of interest to the issue of the role of philosophy in the context of the ecological crisis is Hadot’s essay “Philosophy as a way of life”, and to a lesser extent, “The sage and the world”. Both essays appear in the book called Philosophy as a way of life (1995), and “The sage and the world” certainly leads thematically into “Philosophy as a way of life”. The purview here is mostly different from that in Philosophy in the Present, with the occasional overlapping implication. Hadot traces the notion of philosophy as a way of life as it was ‘approached’ in ancient times – an approach that I contend is of considerable value in the context of the ecological crisis. For example, Hadot (1995: 254) quotes Bergson to convey the character of ‘habitual perception’:

Life requires that we put on blinkers; we must not look to the right, to the left, or behind, but straight ahead, in the direction in which we are supposed to walk. In order to live, we must be selective in our knowledge and our memories, and retain only that which may contribute to our action upon things.

This is one manner of perception where human beings retain knowledge which may contribute to our action upon things, and Hadot (Ibid) refers to it as “utilitarian perception”. I do not suggest that utilitarian perception is ‘bad’, because certainly everyday pragmatism is necessary in the pursuit of food, shelter, a variety other material needs, and in the operation of ‘utilities’, etc. But the Bergson quote does suggest an exclusive pragmatism, and this is the realm of the Promethean, where the ‘objects’ of nature are valued only for their instrumental value and not their inherent value – and ACID is the contemporary ‘manifestation’ or embodiment of this hegemonic realm. The concept of philosophy as a way of life nurtures a form of perception where the inherent value of extant things is foregrounded, where human attitudes align with an ecologically respectful ‘cosmic consciousness’, and where human actions accordingly are aligned with qualities of the Orphic. For example, Hadot (1995: 206-212) says of the practice of philosophy as a way of life that “the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole”. Perhaps the following from Hadot (1995: 273) perfectly sums up the Orphic character of philosophy as a way of life, while foregrounding the theme of interconnection and downplaying exclusively utilitarian tendencies that earlier in this paper I attributed to the ecologically problematic modus operandi of ACID:

Philosophy in antiquity was an exercise practiced at each instant. It invites us to concentrate on each instant of life, to become aware of the infinite value of each present moment, once we have replaced it within the perspective of the cosmos. The exercise of wisdom entails a cosmic dimension. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see the world qua world, but rather treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires, the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to mind. He thinks and acts within a cosmic perspective. He has the feeling of belonging to a whole which goes beyond the limits of his individuality.

By exploring philosophy in the ‘formats’ I have just outlined, and by broadening the context of the ecological crisis via reference to Promethean shapers of discourse and Orphic attitudes, I hope to be able to offer some additional components of a conceptual framework that can be used to approach and address the worrying issue of the ecological crisis, a crisis which hitherto has clearly not been adequately addressed considering the extent to which it is daily exacerbated.



BBC. 2012. “Alternative Economic Cultures: Manuel Castells.” (accessed 11 June 2018).

Badiou, Alain, and Žižek, Slavoj. 2009. Philosophy in the Present. UK: Polity Press.

Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. UK: Polity Press.

Castells, Manuell. 2010. The Rise of the Network Society (Second edition). UK: Blackwell.

Chomsky, Noam and Herman, Edward. (1988) 2002. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. USA: Pantheon Books.

Chomsky, Noam. 1999. Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order. UK: Seven Stories Press.

De Bono, Edward. 1970. Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. USA: Harper and Row.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. “Postscript on societies of control”. October, Vol. 59. USA: MIT Press.

Democracy Now. 2012. “Chomsky: Occupy Wall Street “Has Created Something That Didn’t Really Exist” in U.S. – Solidarity.”

Descartes, René. (1637) 1972. ‘Discourse on Method’. In: The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Vol. 1. Tr. Haldane, E.S. and Ross, G.R.T. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. USA: Penguin.

Eisenstein, C. 2011. Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the age of Transition. USA: North Atlantic Books.

Foster, John B. and Clark, Brett and York, Richard. 2010. The Ecological Rift – Capitalism’s War on the Earth. USA: Monthly Review Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. Introduction to The End of History and the Last Man.

Hadot, Pierre. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. USA: Blackwell.

Hadot, Pierre. 2006. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hancock, Graham. 1995. Fingerprints of the Gods. UK: William Heinemann Ltd.

Hancock, Graham. 2015. Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilisation. UK: Hodder and Stoughton.

Hartmann, Thom. 1998. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. UK: Hodder and Stoughton.

Hawken, Paul. 2007. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. UK: Penguin.

Heidegger, Martin. (1943) 2002. On the Essence of Truth. New York: Continuum.

Horkheimer, Max. 1947. The Eclipse of Reason. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hoyer, Karl G. 2012. “Ecophilosophy and the Environmental Debate”. In Ecophilosophy in a World of Crisis: Critical Realism and the Nordic Contributions, eds. Bhaskar, K., Hoyer, K.G., and Naess, P., 44-72. UK: Routledge.

Konik, Inge. 2015. “Whither South Africa – Neoliberalism or an Embodied Communitarian Indigenous Ethic?” PhD diss., Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Korsten, David. 2016. “Why the Economy Should Stop Growing – and Just Grow Up”.

Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? London and New York: Zed Books.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1972. One Dimensional Man: studies in ideology of advanced industrial society. London: Abacus.

McDonald, Alyssa. 2010. “The NS Interview: Noam Chomsky”. (accessed 11 June 2018).

Mill, John S. (1859) 2002. On Democracy. USA: Dover Publications, Inc.

Monibot, George. 2017. “Too Right it’s Black Friday: Our Relentless Consumption is Trashing the Planet”.

Naess, Arne. 2008. The Ecology of Wisdom, eds. Drengson and Devall. USA: Counterpoint.

Oxfam. 2017. “An Economy of the 99%.” (accessed 11 June 2018).

Pittaway, David A. 2017. “Broadening the Context of the Ecological Crisis: Featuring the Orphic and the Promethean.” PhD diss., University of the Free State.

Princen, Thomas. 2010. Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order. USA: MIT Press.

Sheldrake, Rupert. 1991. The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God. Vermont: Park Street Press.

Speth, James G. 2008. The Bridge at the end of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. USA: Yale University Press.

Steger, Manfred B. 2009. Globalisms: the Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-First Century. USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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[1] See the following source for an example of the Christian prosecution of the Cathars, Albigensians, and Bogomils: accessed 11 June 2018.

A Contradiction at the Core of Democrapitalism: Some Socio-Political and Ecological Implications

Please note: this is an article I wrote for submission to a journal from which I have not yet received feedback. The journal editor and article reviewers may accept the article, reject it, or accept conditionally with specific changes required. If it gets accepted and published, I will edit this note to say so!


A Contradiction at the Core of Democrapitalism:

Some Socio-Political and Ecological Implications


Peter Barnes has made the following observation regarding the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism: democracy is an open system, while capitalism is a gated system. Yet the dominant global political economy is ‘democratic capitalism’ (or ‘democrapitalism’), which, in the light of Barnes’ observation, is an oxymoron. A result of the presence of a gated capitalist ‘core’ within democracy is the political prioritisation of ‘business as usual’, which resists socio-political or economic changes because economic growth is a prerequisite of capitalism. Authentic responses to some of the challenges facing humankind – challenges arising from unrestrained economic growth – cannot occur if economic growth is permanently on the political agenda. A broad literature review is here conducted in order to highlight aspects of the open-closed contradiction that lies at the heart of democrapitalism and some of its accompanying effects, and links are made between to the broader issue of the impact of human economic activity on ecology at large occurring alongside the prioritisation of economic growth in democrapitalism. Acknowledging the open-closed contradiction of democrapitalism means acknowledging its in-built incapacity to rise to some of humanity’s current challenges, such as the ecological crisis. Solutions to such challenges, it is suggested, should be sought elsewhere.

Keywords: democracy; capitalism; open-closed distinction; the occupy movement; ecological crisis.


In this paper, I collate views from several critical thinkers for the central claim that a deep-seated contradiction lies at the heart of the ‘union’ between democracy and capitalism, or ‘democrapitalism’. In the context of this paper, these denote a political economy with economic growth being a central defining feature, the presence of which excludes the possibility of curbing economic growth. Yet capitalist economic growth is a restless dynamo (Kovel 2002, 39) – it is a form of growth based on the presumably endless expansion of human economic activity via the increase in the throughput of ‘natural resources’ extracted from nature. I will expand on these focal areas, and it will be clear that one implication of the emphasis of certain themes is that capitalism and democracy are incompatible[1]. From the outset, however, I wish to make clear what I am not arguing: I am not arguing that democracy and capitalism are inherently ‘bad’, undesirable, or in need of excision from the human socio-political and economic arenas, regardless of my personal opinions on these matters. I am also not setting out to trace the historical development of the relationship between democracy and capitalism. I do argue that, due to the open-closed paradox at the core of democrapitalism, solutions to issues caused by capitalist characteristics (such as ‘addiction’ to economic growth) must be sought outside of the so-called democratic political sphere indistinguishable from capitalist ‘business-as-usual’.

Features of capitalism under scrutiny

Joel Kovel (2002, 39) reminds readers of his explicitly-titled book, The Enemy of Nature: the End of Capitalism or the End of the World? of an inherent defining feature of capitalism: that capitalist production is primarily for profit:

Those who do not know yet that capitalist production is for profit and not use can learn it right away from watching Wall Street discipline corporations that fail to measure up to standards of profitability. Capitalists celebrate the restless dynamism that these standards enforce, with its drive for innovation, efficiency and new markets.

Kovel continues his exposé by immediately outlining the difference between ‘exchange-value’ and use-value, the former being the central focus of capitalism in that ‘exchange-value’ is the area in which capital (profit) is accumulated; he writes (2002, 39) that use-value

signifies the commodity’s place in the ever-developing manifold of human needs and wants, while exchange-value represents its ‘commodity-being’, that is, its exchangeability, an abstraction that can be expressed only in quantitative terms, and as money. Broadly speaking, capital represents that regime in which exchange-value predominates over use-value in the production of commodities – and the problem with capital is that, once installed, this process becomes self-perpetuating and expanding.

Foster, Clark and York (2010, 40) agree on this point: “It is exchange value, which knows only quantitative increase – not use value, which relates to the qualitative aspects of production – which drives the system”. In capitalism, the focus on exchange value is elevated to soaring heights by the exclusive focus on ‘quantifiable profit’. Baer (2012, 300) reminds readers, via reference to Foster, that private “corporations are institutions with one and only one purpose: the pursuit of profit”. Kovel (2002, 48) discusses this ‘pursuit of profit’ with reference to the benchmark of progress in industrial neoliberal ‘free-market’ capitalist society – GDP. Capital, he says,

employs purely quantitative indices such as gross domestic product (GDP) because they are convenient indices of accumulation. Scarcely a critic of the ecological crisis has refrained from commenting upon the stupid brutality of this number, which reduces the living and the dead alike to the common denominator of what can be extracted from their commodification. It is necessary, though, to see thinking in terms of GDP as no mere error, but the actual logic of the reigning power…

Already, from the lattermost observation, an ecological consequence of the focus on GDP (and concomitantly, economic growth) is apparent, and this consequence will be brought more into focus later in this article. To give a clearer picture of capitalism’s prioritisation of such indices, consider the following from the online Library of Economics and Liberty[2]; the focus is on the USA, the country heralded as the epitome of free-market capitalism, a system that has had global reach for generations:

Gross domestic product, the official measure of total output of goods and services in the U.S. economy, represents the capstone and grand summary of the world’s best system of economic statistics. The federal government organizes millions of pieces of monthly, quarterly, and annual data from government agencies, companies, and private individuals into hundreds of statistics, such as the consumer price index (CPI), the employment report, and summaries of corporate and individual tax returns. The U.S. Department of Commerce then marshals the source data into a complete set of statistics known as the National Income and Product Accounts. This set of double-entry accounts provides a consistent and detailed representation of production in the United States (GDP) and its associated income (national income).

Accompanying globalisation has been the spread of the prioritisation of GDP throughout the world – countries are often listed according to their GDP statuses. A country might be more or less democratic depending on whichever criteria one uses to ascertain the level of democracy in a country; but all countries, in being part of a global economy, participate in economic activity, which is measured in GDP. So all countries might not be democratic in the same way that the USA is, but all governments, democratic or otherwise, participate in the global economy, thereby creating a system-driven imperative to prioritise GDP.

Capitalism’s presence in democracy

Noam Chomsky[3] once responded to the question, “Do you vote?” – and voting is the main political contribution of the average citizen of a democracy – with the following observation:

I often do, without much enthusiasm. In the US, there is basically one party – the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies. By and large, I am opposed to those policies. As is most of the population.

Chomsky’s observation draws attention to the homogeny of a supposedly heterogeneous democratic political sphere. Chomsky is commenting on the USA, but as McChesney points out in the introduction to Chomsky’s book, Profit over People (1999, 10), the USA is “the spawning ground of liberal democracy”, which is to say the American model of democracy is applicable when discussing democracy in general considering the extent to which the model has via globalisation been implemented in many countries. Speth (2008, 31), in The Bridge at the end of the World, agrees, emphasising the economic aspect of the model in question: “With increasingly few exceptions, modern capitalism… is the operating system of the world economy”. Speth (Ibid) is very specific about the type of ‘operating system’ he is denoting; it is clearly not exclusive to the USA, and it clearly does involve ‘government’, or what Speth refers to as the administrative state:

I use “modern capitalism” here in a broad sense as an actual, existing system of political economy, not as an idealized model. Capitalism as we know it today encompasses the core economic concept of private employers hiring workers to produce products and services that the employers own and then sell with the intention of making a profit. But it also includes competitive markets, the price mechanism, the modern corporation as its principal institution, the consumer society and the materialistic values that sustain it, and the administrative state actively promoting economic strength and growth for a variety of reasons.

The administrative state referred to by Speth is, for the purposes of this paper, synonymous with the term ‘government’, and the main point I am emphasising from Speth’s observations is that when capitalism is the economic base of a country, the administrative state promotes economic strength and growth, be it by way of policy or other means. Both Chomsky and Speth single out of this kind of policy – business policy – in the political/governmental/administrative sphere, thereby drawing attention to the USA’s explicit capitalist attitudes and ideology at a political level. But McChesney makes it clear (1999, 9)  that neoliberal capitalism is “the defining political economic paradigm of our time”, which is certainly true if one considers that extensive capitalist activities occur in all countries, albeit to varying degrees. With a focus on the USA, Steger (2009, 121), quoting Nadar, points out in Globalisms: the Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-First Century, that there is a serious problem for democracy when a capitalist monetary economy is in use: a “‘massive avalanche of corporate money’ has buried the democratic system of the United States”. Keeping in mind the aforementioned point that the United States’ democracy is representative of the globalised neoliberal capitalist political sphere, it is useful to consider more information from Nadar via Steger:

Government has been hijacked to a degree beyond anything we have seen in the last 70 years. It’s been hijacked by corporate power, the multinationals mostly. They have their own people in government. They run [for elections] their own people, they appoint their own people, they get corporate lawyers to become judges. And when that happens you no longer have a countervailing force called government arrayed against excesses of what Jefferson called ‘the moneyed interest’. Instead, you have this convergence, almost a phalanx, of business controlling government and turning it against its own people.

This phenomenon is confirmed in a 2017 report from Oxfam called ‘An Economy of the 99%’[4] in a manner that makes the ‘corporate hijacking of democracy’ relevant beyond the confines of the USA:

Many of the super-rich also use their power, influence and connections to capture politics and ensure that the rules are written for them. … Some of the super-rich also use their fortunes to help buy the political outcomes they want, seeking to influence elections and public policy.

The state may have at several stages in the history of democracy included some regulatory functions, but since the ‘free-market’ economic neoliberal regimes unleashed during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, deregulation has been a priority of the democrapitalist government[5]. Speth (2008:218) goes so far as to say that government has been “captured by the very corporations and concentration of wealth it should be seeking to regulate and revamp”[6]. It is worth looking at the entire paragraph (Ibid) from which this sentence has been extracted for the clear relevance it has considering the themes and issues raised so far in this article:

There are many reasons why government in Washington today is more problem than solution. It is hooked on GDP growth – for its revenues, for its constituencies, and for its influence abroad. It has been captured by the very corporations and concentration of wealth it should be seeking to regulate and revamp, a pattern that has now reached alarming proportions. And it is hobbled by an array of dysfunctional institutional arrangements, beginning with the way presidents are elected.

‘The way presidents are elected’ is a reference to voting, and voting is a characteristic of democracy by definition, not just in the United States. Being ‘hooked’ on GDP growth is certainly also a trait shared by any country participating in a capitalist economy (granted, to varying degrees), and it is hard to find examples of countries not participating in capitalist activity. I have laid enough of a conceptual foundation at this stage of the paper to get to the crux of my argument. Peter Barnes, quoted by Speth (2008, 218) puts it succinctly:

Democracy is an open system, and economic power can easily infect it. By contrast, capitalism is a gated system, its bastions aren’t easily accessed by the masses; capitalism’s primacy thus isn’t an accident, nor the fault of George W. Bush. It’s what happens when capitalism inhabits democracy.

Barnes’ explanation goes some way in justifying Speth’s following damning remarks about the state of Democracy based on his research thereof. He calls it “weak, shallow, dangerous and corrupted” (Ibid), stating that it is “the best democracy money can buy”, and that the “ascendency of market fundamentalism and antiregulation, antigovernment ideology makes the current moment particularly frightening”. Speth later (2008, 219) explains, by way of Barnes again, that the notion of the state promoting “‘the common good’ is sadly naive. …We face a disheartening quandary here. Profit-maximizing corporations dominate our economy. …The only obvious counter-weight is government, yet government is dominated by these same corporations”[7]. These observations are supported by the 2017 Oxfam report[8], ‘An economy of the 99%’, in which the democrapitalist system I have outlined so far is referred to as ‘crony Capitalism’. Some effects of this system are also identified in the report:

Crony capitalism benefits the rich, the people who own and run these corporations, at the expense of the common good and of poverty reduction. It means that smaller businesses struggle to compete and ordinary people end up paying more for goods and services as they face cartels and monopoly power of corporations and those with close connections with government.

How do corporations achieve such influence? Speth (2008, 219) quotes Gar Alperovitz to explain that “the large corporation regularly”…

  1. Influences legislation and agenda setting through lobbying
  2. Influences regulatory behaviour through direct and indirect pressure
  3. Influences elections via large-scale campaign contributions
  4. Influences public attitudes through massive media campaigns
  5. Influences local government choices through all of the above – and adds the implicit or explicit threat of withdrawing its plants, equipment, and jobs from specific locations.

Steger (2009:7) clearly agrees, specifically with the focus on points 1 and 5 regarding agenda setting and the influence on local government:

I contend that market globalism is a political ideology that has achieved dominance in our time. Espousing a hegemonic system of ideas that make normative claims about a set of social processes called ‘globalization,’ market globalists seek to limit public discussion on the meaning and character of globalization to an agenda of things to discuss that supports a specific political agenda.

These ‘normative claims about a set of social processes’ used by ‘market globalists’ to ‘limit public discussion’ are factors that clearly prevent social change in the interests of ‘the people’ (which is often called for by ‘the people’ when they exercise their political contribution in the form of a democratic vote), whether the market globalists know it or not. Further factors are identified in the Oxfam report already mentioned:

…[T]he rich [construct] ‘reinforcing feedback loops’ in which the winners of the game get yet more resources to win even bigger next time. For example, they use their wealth to back political candidates, to finance lobbying and – more indirectly – to bankroll think tanks and universities to shift political and economic narratives towards the false assumptions that favour the rich.

Capitalism is not synonymous with democracy

Changing focus now to a frequently encountered pro-market, pro-capitalist claim made by market globalists: ‘globalisation furthers the spread of Democracy in the world’ – this is a claim that needs to be addressed. Steger (2009, 84) points out that this “market-globalist claim is anchored in the neoliberal assertion that freedom, free-markets, free trade, and democracy are synonymous terms”. This is an interesting point to consider in hindsight of something that J.S. Mill makes clear in On Liberty[9] regarding the dangers of democracy, namely that liberty (freedom, popularly and naively associated with democracy) was originally conceived of as being in opposition to the state. He says that in “old times” liberty meant “protection against the tyranny of the political rulers” (2002, 3). Clearly, then, liberty and freedom are not necessarily synonymous with the ideology of a state, and in fact any consideration of the concept of freedom (based on an historical approach) needs to address the limitation of the power and extent of the state – in other words, liberty partly entails freedom from the power of the state.

There are supporters of the notion that democracy and economic development go hand-in-hand. Here is Steger (2009, 85) quoting Fukuyama:

Francis Fukuyama, for example, asserts that there exists a clear correlation between a country’s level of economic development and successful democracy. While globalization and capital development do not automatically produce democracies, ‘the level of economic development resulting from globalization is conducive to the creation of complex civil societies with a powerful middle class. It is this class and societal structure that facilitates democracy.’

Steger’s response (Ibid) is that such a definition is a “‘thin’ definition of democracy” in use in the neoliberal ‘free-market’ capitalist, globalised world, a definition that “emphasises formal procedures such as voting at the expense of the direct participation of broad majorities in political and economic decision making”:

This focus on the act of voting – in which equality prevails only in the formal sense – helps to obscure the conditions of inequality reflected in existing asymmetrical power relations in society. Formal elections provide the important function of legitimating the rule of dominant elites, thus making it more difficult for popular movements to challenge the rule of elites. The claim that globalization furthers the spread of Democracy in the world is based largely on a narrow, formal-procedural understanding of “democracy”.

Steger (Ibid) continues with some crucial analysis:

Neoliberal economic globalization and the strategic promotion of polyarchic regimes in the Third World are, therefore, two sides of the same ideological coin. They represent the systemic prerequisites for the legitimation of a full-blown world market. The promotion of polyarchy provides market globalists with the ideological opportunity to advance their neoliberal projects of economic restructuring in a language that ostensibly supports the ‘”democratization” of the world.

No surprise then that in a previously encountered sentiment from Speth (2008, 218), neoliberal ‘free-market’ government was described as being “hobbled by an array of dysfunctional institutional arrangements, beginning with the way presidents are elected” (emphasis added). Steger has provided some strong grounds for scepticism about the electoral process. This concern is implicit in the quote from Chomsky, where he comments that there is really only one party in the USA, the business party. McChesney (in Chomsky 1999, 11) puts it bluntly: “Democracy is permissible as long as the control of business is off-limits to popular deliberation or change, i.e. so long as it isn’t democracy”. Such ineffectiveness of the vote is one of the reasons identified by McChesney (Ibid) for neoliberalism being “the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet”.

Profit over people and the environment

Another reason identified by McChesney (1999, 10) for neoliberal Democracy being the ‘enemy’ of participatory democracy has to do with the pernicious social (and as will be seen, ecological) impact of the former ‘thin’ version of democracy. He explains that to be effective,

democracy requires that people feel a connection to their fellow citizens, and that this connection manifests itself through a variety of nonmarket organisations and institution groups, libraries, public schools, neighbourhood organisations, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy, with its notion of the market über alles, takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomised society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralised and socially powerless.

It is clear from the above explanation from McChesney that he views people as socially and politically malleable: put them in an environment suited to encourage participation between people, and such interaction is likely to occur. On the other hand, the latter neoliberal capitalist environment is one where the capitalist ‘free-market’ motive of profit-making turns physical environments into ones where individuals are forced to perpetuate corporate profit-making, i.e. people are turned into consumers. Good consumers are ones whose attitudes have been shaped by the capitalist assumption that economic growth is good, that freedom is the freedom to consume, that political participation is the marking of a piece of paper in an election in order to elect leaders who will make sure that the economy keeps growing, and so on – these are aspects of the “hegemonic system” referred to in an observation from Steger (2009, 7) earlier on in this article. So scrutiny of capitalist assumptions in a democracy, specifically the assumptions that endless growth is desirable or inherently good or logical, and that the role of politics is to ensure the growth of the economy, does go a considerable distance in answering the question, ‘what perpetuates the attitudinal factors causing the ecological crisis?’. In a nutshell, part of the answer is the presence of a ‘gated’ capitalistic growth-demanding core in a shallow ‘democratic’ arena.[10]

In McChesney’s observations (Ibid), clear attention is drawn to the social consequences of the prioritisation of the market in a neoliberal democracy, but the ecological implications should be clear: consumers and shopping malls are symbols of the kinds of activities associated with capitalist growth, which requires a constant increase in the processing of nature’s resources to increase GDP, which comes with obvious deleterious effects on the health of ecologies. The issue McChesney has highlighted can be restated as the issue of ‘profit over people’, a concept that can be broadened to include ‘profit over the environment’ considering the ecological focus I have at times alluded to and which I will discuss in more depth below. As already seen, the idea of ‘profit over people’ is the title of Chomsky’s 1999 book. In it, he writes (1999, 132) that the “the most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions: kings and princes, priestly castes, military juntas, party dictatorships, or modern corporations. The decisions made by GE affect the general society substantially, but citizens play no role in them, as a matter of principle”. It is fitting that Chomsky uses as an example GE (General Electric), one of the world’s most influential and powerful players in the fossil-fuel industry, an industry notorious for systematising massive ecological damage. GE is one of a large number of corporations with more economic power (and therefore political power too, considering what has been revealed so far about the problematic union of the economic and political arenas) than most countries in the world, which can be seen in the following excerpt from Steger (2009, 120), who is again highlighting information offered by Nadar: of the “top one hundred economic entities in the world”, he points out,

fifty-two are corporations and only forty-eight are countries. Moreover, the gross annual sales of such huge TNCs as General Motors exceed the gross domestic product of countries such as Norway, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia.[11] Shaping the globalization of commerce and finance in an authoritarian fashion, these transnational companies contribute to a widening ‘‘democracy gap’’ between ordinary people and their political institutions.

Steger (Ibid) turns to Nadar’s explanation of how the widening of the ‘democracy gap’ occurs:

The global corporatists preach a model of economic growth that rests on the flows of trade and finance between nations dominated by the giant multinationals – drugs, tobacco, oil, banking, and other services. The global corporate model is premised on the concentration of power over markets, governments, mass media, patent monopolies over critical drugs and seeds, the workplace and corporate culture. All these and other power concentrates, homogenize the globe and undermine democratic processes and their benefits.

 Homogenisation of the globe

‘Homogenisation of the globe’ (Ibid) is a useful term to use when considering not only the social and political impact of the domination of the ‘free-market’ neoliberal Capitalist economic system, but also its ecological impact. Democracy in its idealised form is undermined, as has been shown in this paper already, but so is the ecology of the planet due to the restless dynamism of capitalism that demands of the democracies it infiltrates the processing of ever-increasing amounts of ‘resources’ or services for economic growth. So when Chomsky (1999:132) says that the “‘corporatization of America’ during the past century has been an attack on democracy”, one can legitimately add that it has been an attack on the ecologies of the planet as well; i.e. an attack on nature, the preservation of which is in the interests of ‘the people’ considering the all too obvious, yet often overlooked, fact that people need nature to remain in-tact and healthy and diverse if human life is to be sustained. Remember here that the ‘democratic’ system of the USA is a symbol for the kind of ‘democracy’ that has swept the planet has already been discussed earlier on in this paper; what is said about the USA is relevant the world over to varying degrees depending on the level of democracy occurring, and wherever capitalist activity is taking place. Chomsky (Ibid) continues with relevant information regarding the issue of what prevents the kind of social change often in the interests of ‘the people’, and (I will add) in the interests of the ecologies that constitute life on the planet as well: the “so-called ‘free-trade agreements’ are one such device of undermining democracy. They are designed to transfer decision making about people’s lives and aspirations into the hands of private tyrannies that operate in secret and without public supervision and control”. It follows that a political system in which ‘secret operations’ (whether in the economic or political worlds, which I am arguing overlap) in which decisions are made that affect the lives of millions, is not openly democratic – instead, it is operating in a ‘gated’ manner (which, of course, is a reference to the open-closed distinction I attributed to Barnes earlier). Within the gates – within what I have referred to as the core of the democrapitalist system – lies the capitalist commitment to ‘grow the economy’, which usually entails increasing industrial activity, which in turn usually entails increasing the throughput of natural resources for profit. In a quote from Kovel (2002:48) that featured earlier in this paper, the link between economic growth (measured in GDP) and negative ecological impact is clearly made: “Scarcely a critic of the ecological crisis has refrained from commenting upon the stupid brutality of this number [i.e. GDP], which reduces the living and the dead alike to the common denominator of what can be extracted from their commodification”. But reducing the living and dead in such a manner cannot not occur if an industrial-technological capitalist economy is to survive: it survives at the expense of what is considered to be a ‘standing reserve’ of natural resources (which, ironically, undermines the political economy’s long-term survival by jeopardising the well-being of the natural platform on which humanity depends) – this is why Kovel (Ibid) referred to ‘GDP thinking’ as “the actual logic of the reigning power”. So one could reasonably expect that, if my argument about the open-closed paradox of democratic capitalism has any merit, as democracy (an open system) spreads, so does capitalism (a closed system), and vice versa, and alongside the growth of these shapers of discourse, there is an increase in the rate of ecological destruction as citizens are transformed into consumers, and ‘resources’ are processed according to the capitalist imperative to ‘grow-or-die’ – and this is indeed observable: the spread of democratic capitalism and the accompanying devastating impact on the natural world.

Solutions? Look elsewhere.

Based on the themes I have developed so far in this article, it should be clear that if a person believes that solutions to issues such as the large-scale destruction of natural ecologies are to be arrived at from within the realms of democrapitalism, then such beliefs would be rendered naïve. A ‘shallow’ democracy is impotent at achieving fundamental system changes when a deep-seated (gated, closed) capitalist kernel gives impetus to continue economic growth. Unsurprising then that after a long history of inter-governmental meetings convened to form a response to an issue like climate change, few (if any) actionable constraints on one of the primary causes of climate change, namely economic growth, are discernable in reality. Perhaps there is something of an explanation to be seen in an observation Thomas Princen (2010:55) makes, via reference to Robert Chambers, about ‘lack of political will’. In the following, Princen (via Chambers) equates politicians (i.e. the representatives of democracy) with ‘the rich and powerful’ (i.e. the ‘cream’ of the economic ‘crop’): “lack of political will means that the rich and powerful have failed to act against their own interests”. It could be suggested that a different form of democracy would be needed – and here one can consider the ‘direct democratic’ process put into practise during the height of the Occupy Movement. Here is Ian Buchanan’s description of the Occupy Movement’s participatory process, followed by some comments he makes on the “pale shadow of ‘true’ democracy” that I have contextualised in this paper: ‘Occupy’, says Buchanan (2015:193),

was an example of participatory democracy in action – the set of principles the occupiers wanted to live by was created and embraced by the occupiers themselves. All proposals required the support of at least 90% of the General Assembly in order to be ratified, which is far more onerous than parliamentary democracies anywhere else requires. And of course that was precisely the point: it demonstrated that democracy as we know it, that is, democracy as it is practiced in the United States and elsewhere is a pale shadow of ‘true’ democracy, which is open to all and premised on the notion that only near-consensus can be regarded as representative of the will of the people. As impractical as this model of democracy might be, its symbolic value should not be underestimated. It bespoke a powerful hunger for social justice, for a political and economic system that represents the needs of the many not the greed of the few that not even President Obama could fail to perceive.

Having been a part-time member of the London chapter of the Occupy Movement in 2011-2012, I was involved in the direct democratic process – arguably an attempt to engage in a transition from a shallow democracy to something deeper. At no point was the process unimpeded by the presence of the ‘henchmen’ of democrapitalism: police-people continuously played a ‘cat-and-mouse game’ with us, disturbing meetings by arriving with ever new-and-urgent conditions and often with police-barriers which the police placed around us in an attempt to minimise the activists’ discussions. This is illustrative of the manner in which change is prevented in an ‘advanced’ consumer capitalist industrial democracy, and it also raises a problem regarding the effectiveness of large-scale dissent: large-scale dissent is conspicuous, thus making it easy for the henchmen of democrapitalism to identify ‘threats’ and prevent the kinds of activities that would undermine the reigning power of the system. Whether a more ‘decentralised’ democracy, like the one aimed for by ‘Occupier’, would be one that curbs economic activity in a manner that responds effectively to issues like destruction of natural ecologies is up for debate. What is not up for debate, based on the links that I have made in this article, is that something is needed, or rather various steps need to be taken toward an ‘alternative’, one markedly unlike the model of the oxymoronic democratic-capitalist-government in which economic growth is of paramount importance, if ecological sustainability is to be viable. These are desperate ecological times[12], and perhaps desperate measures are needed.

 Conclusion: deep political and ecological transformation starts with the individual, perhaps via a psychedelic experience and implementation of permaculture principles

In the wake of the marriage between democracy and capitalism, with the knowledge that a large-scale attempt like ‘Occupy’ did not achieve a tangible, long-lasting alternative[13], with the awareness that calls for deep transformation aimed at a democrapitalist governments are ‘barking-up-the-wrong-tree’ (because, as has been seen, the rich and powerful are unlikely to act against their own interests), and knowing that unprecedented ecological crises face the human race, I suggest that deep systemic transformation begins with transformations at the personal level. What I mean by this – and based on what has surfaced in this article – is that a person can make a concerted effort to decrease purely capitalistic ‘endless-growth’ thinking, to lessen the ‘governmentality’ in which voting is seen as sufficient political action, to incorporate into their thinking the notion that democracy is not synonymous with capitalism, to recognise the restless dynamism not only at the heart of capitalism but as the impetus for political agendas as well (regardless of the lip-service given to egalitarian motives by capitalists and politicians alike), and to radically alter their relationship with ‘nature’ so that nature is not treated like a ‘standing reserve of resources’.

There are various methods in which to decrease purely capitalistic ‘endless-growth’ thinking and to lessen ‘governmentality’. An education wherein critical thinking skills are enhanced, which happens (for example) in the Humanities, is one such method, but education of this sort may take several years to achieve a substantial change in the way a person thinks about ecology and democrapitalism. Such an education would also not guarantee that a person ‘translates’ theory into action, and the person may simply perpetuate business as usual afterwards. However, there is an education of a different kind that can be achieved in a matter of a few hours, after which it is guaranteed that a person will be radically transformed.

The education to which I refer is one that occurs during a proper psychedelic experience. The topic of psychedelics may seem controversial, but psychedelic studies are receiving extensive attention in the USA and elsewhere[14]. It may be impossible to accurately put the experience into words, but it is possible to measure some aspects of the results of the experience, which is what numerous researchers have done[15]. One study published extremely relevant results in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, results supporting my claim that a psychedelic experience can very quickly transform the way in which people think about their relationship to nature, and also lessen ‘governmentality’. The title of the study (by Lyons and Carhart-Harris, 2018) is revealing: “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”. Here follow some results (emphasis added):

In the general population, psychedelic drug use is not associated with increased incidence of mental health problems (Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013)[16], but is instead associated with lower rates of suicidality and psychological distress (Hendricks et al., 2015a, 2015b; Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013). Psychedelic drug users have also been shown to exhibit greater optimism (or reduced pessimism) than non-users (Grob et al., 1996) as well as increased concern for others, nature and the environment when compared with users of cannabis, amphetamine or heroin (Lerner and Lyvers, 2006). Experience with psychedelics has been found to positively affect one’s sense of feeling part of nature rather than separate from it, leading to pro-environmental behavioural changes… A recent correlational study of ours found that lifetime psychedelic drug use in the general population positively predicted nature relatedness and negatively predicted authoritarian political views. (Forstmann and Sagioglou, 2017).

Having substantiated the claim about the psychedelic experience imparting pro-nature and anti-authoritarian political views, I will turn to Gary Fisher (quoted in Walsh and Grof 2005) to support my claim that the psychedelic experience works remarkably quickly in achieving personal transformation:

Fortunately, after a successful psychedelic experience, you never go back to your previous state of consciousness – that’s the whole point of taking psychedelics. If you don’t integrate the higher levels of consciousness into your daily life, then the trip has been irrelevant. … If a psychedelic doesn’t result in your becoming a human being who is more human, then psychedelics are meaningless and don’t make a difference. I have never known anyone who had a profound transcendental experience who wasn’t significantly changed in his or her daily life by that experience.

Having had a transformation coterminous with the one facilitated by the psychedelic experience, it may be difficult for a person to know how to ‘translate’ their experience into ecological pro-activity. Regarding this issue of implementation, I will refer to some of the research I conducted in my PhD study[17], specifically Chapter 6, where I focus extensively on the positive ecological impacts of the personal implementation of permaculture principles in various context-specific manners. In a nutshell, one can drastically reduce their contributions to cyclical consumption (cyclical consumption is excellent for capitalist economic growth) and organise some aspects of some of the systems on which s/he relies according to down-to-earth principles of sustainability. One can be left with very real, tangible examples of ‘alternative systems’, examples that may be symbolic in that they may be convenient microcosms from which lessons can be learned regarding how to use permaculture principles, which are ecological principles, to order larger macrocosms like communities and cities.

One such microcosmic alternative system is a compost toilet. It might seem absurd that I am ending an article that is ostensibly about the unholy marriage of democracy and capitalism – by all means massive intuitions that shape discourse in complex ways – by invoking the image of a simple and humble compost toilet. However, it is a remarkably and surprisingly powerful symbol: a compost toilet system is something a person can take complete control over. It can be built using recycled or ‘upcycled’ materials; it is ‘flushed’ with compost or saw-dust, or even a handful of sand, thereby saving water. No faeces or urine are flushed ‘away’ to be dealt with by ‘someone else’; no nitrates enter a given ecology ‘in excess’ thereby causing nitrification, which is detrimental in the context of broader ecology. One can safely incorporate the correctly-processed compost into a vegetable garden or orchard, thereby facilitating the growing of food. One can point at a compost toilet and proclaim, ‘Look, I built this, I maintain it, I empty it, and I create fertility from it and I grow food as an end result. I don’t have to earn money to pay for the water that flushes my faeces away so that it can be processed ‘somewhere else’ where it often ends up detrimentally impacting nature (via nitrification of rivers, oceans, and water-tables), and I obtain food produced from my own environment because I have taken control of one small aspect of my life’. No representative of democrapitalism needs come and inspect the cement foundation and sewer system (for a fee, of course) and ‘hook you up’ to the municipal water supply (for a fee, of course), because no cement foundation, sewer system, or municipal water supply is necessary for a self-built compost toilet.

So it is without facetiousness that I end with a question arising in light of the themes I have built on in this article, and in the recent light of my invocation of the symbol of a compost toilet: what is more useful in the age of democrapitalism and unprecedented ecological crises – voting in the elections for the particular administration of an inescapably capitalist democracy, or responsibly undergoing a psychedelic experience, and thereafter applying permaculture principles in some small manner as a first step in re-organising the systems on which one depends?

 Funding details

This work is based on the research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant Number 99188, SARChI Chair in Identities and Social Cohesion in Africa, Nelson Mandela University). Opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this work are those of the author’s alone and the NRF accepts no liability whatsoever in this regard. The author also acknowledges research support he received during his PhD (2014-2017) from the NRF and the University of the Free State.


Baer, H.A. 2012. Global capitalism and Climate Change: The Need for an Alternative World System. UK: AltaMira Press.


Chomsky, N. 1999. Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order. UK: Seven Stories Press.


Foster, J. & Clark, B. & York, R. 2010. The Ecological Rift – Capitalism’s War on the Earth. USA: Monthly Review Press.


Kovel. J. 2002 and 2006. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (First and second editions). London and New York: Zed Books.


Lyons, T., Carhart-Harris, R.L. “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2018, DOI: 10.1177/0269881117748902


Mill, J.S. 2002 [1859]. On Democracy. USA: Dover Publications, Inc.


Pittaway, D.A. 2017. ‘Broadening the context of the ecological crisis: featuring the Orphic and the Promethean’. South Africa: University of the Free State.


Pollan, M. 2018. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. How_to_Change_Your_Mind_excerpt.pdf accessed 28 May 2018


Speth, J. 2008. The Bridge at the end of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. USA: Yale University Press.

Steger, M. 2009. Globalisms: the Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-First Century. USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Walsh, R. and Grob, S. 2005. Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. USA: Sunypress.


[1] This is not a new idea, but I provide support for it in a manner that may reveal different themes for consideration.

[2] accessed 30 May 2018.

[3] accessed 30 May 2018.

[4] accessed 30 May 2018

[5] In 1987, during Reagan’s presidency, then Vice-president George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto laboratory in 1987. The company was trying to circumvent what company people called “bureaucratic hurdles”, a reference to regulatory processes. Here is a video clip ( accessed 30 May 2018) of Bush and his entourage being shown the gene-manipulation process. Of note are his words, “We’re in the dereg [deregulation] business. Call me”.

[6] This point is driven home in the documentary, ‘The World According to Monsanto’ ( accessed 31 January 2017), where it is made abundantly clear that a ‘revolving door’ exists between Business and politics. Google search the name Michael Taylor as a case in point, and the phrase ‘Monsanto revolving door’; the infographic at the following site reveals unbelievable collusion:

[7] Barak Obama made a comment in his interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast in support of the notion that government as it is in the USA (and therefore elsewhere in the world) is heavily influenced by ‘institutions’ such as the National Rifle Association, which is not a corporation but certainly functions according to the corporate model. Obama is commenting on a shooting spree perpetrated by a young person who had easy access to arms and ammunition (a common phenomenon in the USA), but the comment is relevant in the context of this article because Obama alludes to the impotency of government to actualise change: “… unfortunately the grip of the NRA on congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this congress. I don’t foresee any real action being taken until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and they say to themselves this is not normal this is something we can change and we can change it. And if you don’t have that kind of voter and voter pressure then it is not going to change from the inside” ( accessed 30 May 2018). The NRA is one institution that has a grip on congress; a multitude of corporations also wields such power. In the context of this article, Obama’s argument is flawed – it shows an ignorance of a chronology dilemma: the voting public is identified as the entity from which pressure must materialise, but, as will be seen soon in this article, a vibrant and democratically proactive public arena is dismantled by neoliberal decisions made by politicians who act in the interests of corporations: “Instead of citizens, [neoliberal democracy] produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomised society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralised and socially powerless” (McChesney, in Chomsky 1999, 10).

[8] accessed 30 May 2018

[9] First published in 1859.

[10] I have elaborated on this answer at some length in this paper, based on research conducted in my PhD study, ‘Broadening the Context of the Ecological Crisis: Featuring the Orphic and the Promethean’ (2017). I developed several other themes in the process of answering the question about attitudinal causes of the ecological crisis, and these will be explored in other articles.

[11] More recent information about this is found in Oxfam’s 2017 report called ‘An economy for the 99%’: “Big businesses did well in 2015/16: profits are high and the world’s  10 biggest corporations together have revenue greater than that of the government revenue of 180 countries combined”.

[12] Foster, Clark and York comment (2010:155): “It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Available evidence now strongly suggests that, under a regime of ‘business as usual’ with no substantial lessening of the drivers of environmental destruction, we could be facing within a decade or so a major ‘tipping point,’ leading to irrevocable and catastrophic climate change”.

[13] This is not to say that ‘Occupy’ was not influential. Indeed it was, as is evident in the following observations from David Harvey: “I credit the Occupy movement with sparking that new conversation – a conversation that highlights the wealth inequalities all over the world. … It’s interesting that everybody knows what you’re talking about when you mention the “one per cent”. The issue of the one per cent is now on the agenda and given depth by studies like that of Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Joseph Sitglitz has a book on inequality, too, and several other economists are talking about it. Even the IMF is now saying that there is a danger that follows when inequality reaches a certain level. Even Obama is saying it. But Obama wouldn’t have said it if Occupy hadn’t done so first”.

[14] See Michael Pollan’s latest (2018) book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

[15] Simply do a search for ‘psychedelic studies’ and refine search results to the studies conducted at Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, and NYU.

[16] Note that these in-quote references are not included in the reference list at the end of this article. The in-quote references can be traced via the specific paper by Lyons and Carhart-Harris, namely “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”.

[17] The study is called ‘Broadening the context of the ecological crisis: featuring the Orphic and the Promethean. University of the Free State, 2017.

“To learn healing knowledge”: Psychedelic studies, philosophy, transformation and healing

Please note: this is an article I wrote for submission to a journal from which I have not yet received feedback. The journal editor and article reviewers may accept the article, reject it, or accept conditionally with specific changes required. If it gets accepted and published, I will edit this note to say so!

“To learn healing knowledge”: Psychedelic studies, philosophy, transformation and healing

“For our species, I learned, plants and fungi with the power to radically alter consciousness have long and widely been used as tools for healing the mind, for facilitating rites of passage, and for serving as a medium for communicating with supernatural realms, or spirit worlds. These uses were ancient and venerable in a great many cultures, but I ventured one other application: to enrich the collective imagination — the culture — with the novel ideas and visions that a select few people bring back from wherever it is they go”. Michael Pollan, in How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, 2018.


Psychedelic studies conducted at Johns Hopkins, NYU, UCLA, and elsewhere, are yielding significant and exciting results. Patients guided through psychotherapy assisted psychedelic experiences report not only that their psychological problems are drastically alleviated or cured, but that their psychedelic experiences facilitate life-changing psychological transformations. Some of the information compiled in various psychedelic studies is coterminous with information available on the impact of the Ancient Greek Eleusinian rituals, which also facilitated profound transformations in initiates after they drank the sacred kykeon. The link between contemporary clinical research and Ancient Greek culture is important: the research lends support to the underemphasised argument that psychedelic experiences were central to Ancient Greek culture, a culture considered to have sparked Western philosophy and culture. A further link is discernable in Hadot’s account of philosophy as a way of life, where philosophical perception is aligned with the transformed perceptual states depicted in psychedelic studies and reports of the Eleusinian experience; and philosophy according to Badiou is ‘interested in’ transformation, which lends further support to the claim that philosophy should be interested in the transformative (psychedelic) experience. Furthermore, indigenous Southern African practices often facilitated transformative psychedelic experiences. Psychedelics therefore increasingly appear to be a commonality across various contexts. Considering the focus on transformation in the South African post-apartheid legacy, appropriate platforms for accessible psychedelic experiences can arguably facilitate small but important steps toward the transformation (something always of interest to philosophy) of ailing economies and ecosystems, and simultaneously provide opportunities for personal growth, social cohesion, and academic collaboration.           


Background problem and aims

All psychedelics – ‘magic’ mushrooms[1], mescaline from certain cacti, LSD[2], ayauscha and DMT[3], MDMA[4], to name the obvious ones – are illegal. In most countries, penalties for possession of these substances are severe and people often spend many years in jail if convicted for a drug offence. In this context of illegality, it is unsurprising that the topic of psychedelics is often taboo, especially considering the propaganda[5] churned out by the (failed) ‘war on drugs’[6]. What is perhaps surprising is that in 1956, when various psychedelics and other ‘drugs’ were still legal[7] in the U.S.A., R. Gordon Wasson read a paper to an academic group and thereafter received an admonition, suggesting that even then the topic was a sensitive one. His talk was on how the ceremonies used by a Mesoamerican mushroom cult, ceremonies he had partaken in[8], might reveal insight into the Eleusinian Mysteries. After the meeting, a close and long-time friend of Wasson wrote him a letter in which the following was stated (1978:2):

May I add a word of warning? Stick to your Mexican mushroom cult and beware of seeing mushrooms everywhere. We much enjoyed your Philadelphia paper and would recommend you keep as close to that as you can. Forgive the frankness of an old friend.

Wasson speculates that the aura of secrecy in Greek times surrounding the Eleusinian ritual had persisted into his contemporary times, which might explain why his long-time friend, a specialist in Greek archaeology, felt as if it was something of a sacrilege when “prying open the secret” (1978:2). Exactly why the classical scholar protested will forever remain unknown to those of us interested in the attitudes toward the kinds of initiatory experiences similar to the Eleusinian ones. What is certain is that there still exist negative attitudes to the topic of psychedelics, a point evidenced by the simple fact of the broad-spectrum psychedelic prohibition already alluded to. By outlining, first, some of the results of contemporary studies on psychotherapy assisted psychedelic treatments[9], second, some research conducted by Wasson, Hoffman, Ruck and others into the link between the Eleusinian Mysteries and psychedelics, third, by pointing out that the origins of Western philosophy and culture were heavily influenced by the psychedelic experience, and fourth, by making links between ‘philosophical perception’ and ‘psychedelic perception’, I aim to present the topic of ‘psychedelics and philosophy’ in a positive manner and thereby assist in the destigmatisation of the topic. This process of destigmatisation might then make it possible for the ‘psychedelic common grounds’ in the histories of Western philosophy and Southern African indigenous cultural practices[10] to be foregrounded, which is my fifth focal area in this paper. Finally, considering the positive, transformative light in which the topic of psychedelics will be painted throughout steps one to five, I will conclude by suggesting that psychedelics may be able to play an important role across the socio-economic and ecological spectrums.

The new science of psychedelics[11]

For most of this sub-section, the results of various scientific studies will be allowed to ‘speak for themselves’ without any sense of ‘authorial contamination’ or interpretation. Methodologically, this initial approach is important because the themes and information in this sub-section will serve as the foundation from which links will be made to coterminous themes and information relevant across contexts in later sub-sections. The studies are conducted at credible institutions using credible methodologies[12], which is important to remember when considering what may seem to be the ‘incredible’ descriptions of the psychedelic experience and the results attained from the careful use of psychedelic substances combined with psychotherapy.  In the final quarter of this sub-section, I will collate several more generalised observations made by reputable researchers about the psychedelic experience.

In a 2016 study titled “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial” [13] [14], published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the following results are specified:

[P]silocybin produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual wellbeing, and increased quality of life. At the 6.5-month follow-up, psilocybin was associated with enduring anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects (approximately 60–80% of participants continued with clinically significant reductions in depression or anxiety), sustained benefits in existential distress and quality of life, as well as improved attitudes towards death. The psilocybin-induced mystical[15] experience mediated the therapeutic effect of psilocybin on anxiety and depression. (Ross et. al., 2016)

In a similar 2016 study titled “Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial”[16], also published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the following results are specified:

High-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety. At 6-month follow-up, these changes were sustained, with about 80% of participants continuing to show clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety. Participants attributed improvements in attitudes about life/self, mood, relationships, and spirituality to the high-dose experience, with >80% endorsing moderately or greater increased well-being/life satisfaction. Community observer ratings showed corresponding changes. Mystical-type psilocybin experience on session day mediated the effect of psilocybin dose on therapeutic outcomes. (Griffiths et. al. 2017)

Again in 2016, a study titled “Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation”, which focused longitudinally on 15 participants, was published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. In the study the following is recorded:

At long-term follow-up, nine participants (60%) were confirmed as smoking abstinent. At 12-month follow-up 13 participants (86.7%) rated their psilocybin experiences among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives. (Johnson et. al. 2016)

In a 2017 study titled “Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors”[17], published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2018, the following is specified:

Compared with low-dose, high-dose psilocybin produced greater acute and persisting effects. At 6 months… both high-dose groups showed large significant positive changes on longitudinal measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping, and community observer ratings. Determinants of enduring effects were psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience and rates of meditation/spiritual practices. Psilocybin can occasion enduring trait-level increases in prosocial attitudes/behaviors and in healthy psychological functioning. (Griffiths et. al., 2018)

In another article published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, titled “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”, the following is recorded:

In the general population, psychedelic drug use is not associated with increased incidence of mental health problems (Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013)[18], but is instead associated with lower rates of suicidality and psychological distress (Hendricks et al., 2015a, 2015b; Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013). Psychedelic drug users have also been shown to exhibit greater optimism (or reduced pessimism) than non-users (Grob et al., 1996) as well as increased concern for others, nature and the environment when compared with users of cannabis, amphetamine or heroin (Lerner and Lyvers, 2006). Experience with psychedelics has been found to positively affect one’s sense of feeling part of nature rather than separate from it, leading to pro-environmental behavioural changes (Forstmann and Sagioglou, 2017). (Lyons and Carhart-Harris, 2018)

MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study, has taken MDMA therapy trails through FDA approved phase 2, which is no small undertaking in the U.S.A. considering the strict requirements of the regulatory processes for clinical trials. A major breakthrough has occurred since the phase 2 trials: “On July 28, 2017, MAPS and the FDA reached agreement on the Special Protocol Assessment for Phase 3 clinical trials”, which confirms “that the protocol design, clinical endpoints, planned conduct, and statistical analyses for the Phase 3 trials… are acceptable to support regulatory approval by the FDA”[19]. The following summary of numerous trials is provided at the MAPS website:

Phase 2 clinical trials have shown that MDMA can reduce fear and defensiveness, enhance communication and introspection, and increase empathy and compassion, enhancing the therapeutic process for people suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome]. In MAPS’ completed Phase 2 trials with 107 participants, 61% no longer qualified for PTSD after three sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy two months following treatment. At the 12-month follow-up, 68% no longer had PTSD. All participants had chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, and had suffered from PTSD for an average of 17.8 years.

I have listed some findings from five published articles, and quoted from a summary of MAPS findings. This methodology could go on indefinitely due to the several dozen similar studies and results, many of which are compiled at various websites[20]. One more article, this time published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, must feature in this sub-section because in it some important themes and information are emphasised that explicitly depict the psychedelic experience as profoundly transformative. The researchers employed semi-structured interviews to ascertain from thirteen “adult participants aged 22 to 69 years… with clinically elevated anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis” the qualitative impacts of psychedelic therapy. Here follows a summary of the findings:

General themes found in all or nearly all transcripts included relational embeddedness, emotional range, the role of music as conveyor of experience, meaningful visual phenomena, wisdom lessons, revised life priorities, and a desire to repeat the psilocybin experience. Typical themes found in the majority of transcripts included the following: exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love; embodiment; ineffability; alterations to identity; a movement from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness; experiences of transient psychological distress; the appearance of loved ones as guiding spirits; and sharing the experience with loved ones posttreatment. Variant themes found in a minority of participant transcripts include lasting changes to sense of identity, synesthesia experiences, catharsis of powerful emotion, improved relationships after treatment, surrender or “letting go,” forgiveness, and a continued struggle to integrate experience. (Belsar et. al., 2017)

There has been a large focus on the impact of psilocybin in this sub-section, with MDMA featuring once. However, studies are available on all of the psychedelic substances listed at the start of this article, and I have not found any rigorously conducted study or trial that either does not put the careful use of a psychedelic substance in a positive light, or emphasise the profundity of the psychedelic experience. The respected researcher Stanislav Grof, for example, speaking about his work with LSD, had the following to say:

[T]his substance is an unspecific amplifier of mental processes that brings to the surface various elements from the depth of the unconscious. What we see in the LSD experiences and in various situations surrounding them appears to be basically an exteriorization and magnification of the conflicts intrinsic to human nature and civilization. If approached from this point of view, LSD phenomena are extremely interesting material for a deeper understanding of the mind, the nature of man, and human society. (Grof 1975)

Grof went so far as to suggest that work with altered states of consciousness, such as the states of consciousness induced by taking a psychedelic substance, may play a role in increasing “our chances of planetary survival”:

Deep reverence for life and ecological awareness are among the most frequent consequences of the psychospiritual transformation that accompanies responsible work with non-ordinary states of consciousness.  The same has been true for spiritual emergence of a mystical nature that is based on personal experience. It is my belief that a movement in the direction of a fuller awareness of our unconscious minds will vastly increase our chances of planetary survival. (Grof 1992)

Grof’s sentiments might seem a step too far in comparison to the methodological rigour of contemporary clinical studies. However, evident in the results of contemporary clinical studies are ‘peak experiences’ facilitated by the psychedelic under scrutiny in any given study, and it is frequently the case that researchers see beyond necessarily-limited clinical scopes. For example, Lester Grinspoon, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School[21], and his colleague James B. Bakalar, the associate editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and a lecturer in law in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School[22], state the following (1997):

Psychedelic therapy has an analogue in Abraham Maslow’s idea of the peak experience. The drug taker feels somehow allied with a higher power; he becomes convinced that he is part of a much larger pattern, and the sense of cleaning, release, and joy makes old woes seem trivial.

Gary Fisher, “a clinical psychologist who is one of the pioneer workers in psychotherapy utilizing LSD and psilocybin”[23], places emphasis on the role of psychedelics beyond the confines of the purposes to which psychedelics are put in clinical conditions:

Fortunately, after a successful psychedelic experience, you never go back to your previous state of consciousness – that’s the whole point of taking psychedelics. If you don’t integrate the higher levels of consciousness into your daily life, then the trip has been irrelevant. … If a psychedelic doesn’t result in your becoming a human being who is more human, then psychedelics are meaningless and don’t make a difference. I have never known anyone who had a profound transcendental experience who wasn’t significantly changed in his or her daily life by that experience. (Fisher, in Walsh and Grof 2005)

To be sure, there are some risks in the psychedelic undertaking[24], but when psychological screening of potential patients is carried out, as is always the case in the trials and studies listed here and elsewhere, and when the patients are ‘guided’ by a trained administrator and later allowed to integrate their experience proactively via psychotherapy, the results are overwhelmingly positive. The word ‘positive’ may be grossly inappropriate, considering that, as has already been seen, patients rated their psychedelic experience “among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives” – this is surely another articulation of the concept of a ‘peak experience’. It is with the demonstrable facts made available in the psychedelic studies in mind, as well as the broader notion of the ‘peak experience’, that attention can now be turned toward the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most sacred ceremonial rites of passage in Ancient Greece, a culture widely held to be the cradle of Western civilisation and culture, and the birthplace of Western philosophy:

This small country and its people have had a huge influence on the world. Greece is the birthplace of democracy and Western culture. In so many fields of human endeavour – government, philosophy, science, mythology, religion, and all the arts – the accomplishments and contributions of Greece have at times been equalled but have never been surpassed. (McGinnis 2004:7)

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Eleusis is situated slightly north of Athens. Every year for almost 2000 years during the history of Ancient Greece, “people of all classes, emperors and prostitutes, slaves and freemen” (Ruck 1978:12), walked Greece’s most sacred road[25] to participate in the Greek Empire’s most revered celebration. It was a celebration shrouded in secrecy, so much so that “no one, under pain of death, could reveal what happened within the sanctuary” at Eleusis (Ruck 1978:12). Despite the secrecy surrounding the ritual, or perhaps due to the secrecy and the astounding reports by initiates that they underwent life-changing experiences there, various inquiries have been made into the goings-on at Eleusis. What is absolutely clear from these inquiries is that the effect of the ceremony at Eleusis on individuals is conspicuously similar to the psychedelic experience as depicted in the previous sub-section. Furthermore, the inquiries have resulted in the compilation of information that indicates that a psychedelic substance was indeed used at Eleusis. This is important to recognise because, as quoted in the previous sub-section, Ancient Greek culture and philosophy heavily influenced Western culture and philosophy, and if the Eleusinian rites of passage (which were held in the highest regard in Ancient Greece) were of a psychedelic nature, it would seem inappropriate that psychedelics are taboo and prohibited from use in a contemporary culture inheriting so much in the forms of art, philosophy, democracy, religion, and so on, from a culture that held the psychedelic experience in the highest regard. Furthermore, if a psychedelic was used at Eleusis, or at least if a psychedelic state of consciousness was induced at Eleusis, then contemporary psychedelic studies could add insight into the nature of the ‘mystical experience’[26] unanimously reported as a component of the Eleusinian ritual – and vice versa. Acknowledging the psychedelic nature of the Eleusinian experience also links an ancient ceremony to contemporary science, which is a remarkable commonality across time and contexts. This acknowledgement would also make it possible to see links not only to contemporary psychedelic science, but to the indigenous cultural use of psychoactive substances for the purpose of inducing transformative experiences, which would indeed be a cross-cultural and cross-contextual common ground from which human similarities (rather than human differences) could be emphasised and from which collaboration (rather than compartmentalisation and competition) could occur. In short, the study of the various facets of the psychedelic experience could provide opportunities for collaboration and cohesion across contexts, cultures, and disciplines.

The first step of psychedelic use requires that a user ‘takes something’ – a person must eat, drink, or smoke the ‘drug’. At Eleusis, the preparation of the ‘drug’ – the sacred kykeon – was, according to Ruck (1978:13+17) the central event: “a special potion, as we know, was drunk prior to the visual experience”. I have not been able to find an inquiry into the Eleusinian rituals that does not make reference to the drinking of the kykeon (sometimes referred to as a potion) as well as the reported effects of consuming it. The kykeon is everywhere accepted to be a “barley drink” (Rosen 1987:416) infused with mint. In 1943 Albert Hoffman synthesised LSD from ergot fungi, which grows on grains such as barley. When asked by Wasson if the Ancient Greeks could have arrived at a psychedelic drink – i.e. their kykeon – from natural substances and extraction processes at their disposal, Hoffman (1978:10-11) said that

it is certainly not pulling a long bow to assume that the barley grown [at Eleusis] was host to an ergot containing, perhaps among others, the soluble hallucinogenic alkaloids. The famous Rarian plain was adjacent to Eleusis. Indeed this may well have led to the choice of Eleusis for Demeter’s temple, and for the growth of the cluster of powerful myths surrounding them and Triptolemus that still exert their spell on us today.

Despite Hoffman’s considered conclusion[27], one commentator[28] has pointed out that the various available descriptions of the effects of drinking the kykeon indicate that a far more powerful psychoactive substance was the key ingredient in the kykeon recipe. This view holds that considerably large doses of water-soluble ergot fungi would have been needed at exactly the right time of the year for the ceremony, and such reliable availability of large amounts is not guaranteed. However, rather than conclude that a lack of reliable availability of the ergot psychoactive proves that no psychoactive substance was used at Eleusis, the commentator suggests, first, that the myth of Demeter – around which the ceremony is centred, and in which reference is made to the barley drink – was constructed to deliberately protect the secret of the kykeon by misleading ‘audiences’ about the exact ingredients of the kykeon. The commentator goes so far as to suggest that a different, more reliable psychoactive substance was likely the culprit, with his guess being one of the psychoactive ‘magic’ mushrooms such as ones containing psilocybin, a molecule that certainly induces powerful psychedelic effects, as already seen in the extracts from contemporary psychedelic studies. The point here is not to identify which psychoactive substance was used, but rather to emphasise the insistence of researchers that some kind of powerful psychoactive was used.

Rosen follows the philology of the word kykeon via an examination of a fragment of a poem by Hipponax. The researcher (1987:15) identifies first its potential literal meaning in the poem: “a remedy against the hunger arriving from… poverty”, and quickly points out that the speaker of the poem requires of the addressee barley for his drink. Rosen immediately suggests that the more appropriate meaning of the word is ‘drug’: “the kykeon was also known in antiquity for its medicinal qualities, making it all the more appropriate that it be referred to as… a drug in the literal sense” (Ibid). Rosen (1987:422-423) also focuses briefly on the work of C. Watkins to point out that the Homeric references to kykeon

reflect an inherited pre-Greek religious ritual. [Watkins] points out the striking formulaic and thematic correspondences between these Homeric passages and the references in the Rig-Veda to the ritual drinking of soma, which also contains barley. Indeed the central characteristic of both potions, as Watkins demonstrates, is that they were each originally psychotropic.

Rosen’s inquiry into the issue is conveniently succinct. A slightly longer philological approach is taken by Ruck (1978:13-17), not into the Hipponax source, but directly into the Demeter myth pivotal to the Eleusis Mysteries. Ruck’s textual analysis is too long to summarise here, but his conclusion – which is supported in detail in his analysis – is that the “myths of Demeter and Persephone and all their company fit our explanation in every respect. Nothing in any of them is incompatible with our thesis”. The “explanation” Ruck is referring to is about the effects of the Eleusinian ceremony, and the “thesis” he mentions is that the Eleusinian initiates underwent a literal psychedelic experience. Here is an example of why Ruck makes such a conclusion: the central myth associated with the Eleusinian mystery is the myth of the abduction of the goddess Persephone, and her abduction is symbolic: “The marital abduction or seizure of maidens while gathering flowers is… a common theme in Greek myths and Plato records a rationalized version of such stories in which the companion of the seized maiden is named Pharmaceia or, as the name, means, the ‘use of drugs’” (1978:13). Ruck adds, “The particular myth that Plato is rationalizing is in fact one that traced the descent of the priesthood at Eleusis. There can be no doubt that Persephone’s abduction was a drug-induced seizure”.

For anyone who has had a proper[29] psychedelic experience, it is perhaps the case that identifying the exact psychoactive substance used at Eleusis is less important in supporting the explanation and thesis (Ibid) than is the recognition that the reported effects of the Eleusinian experience are fully coterminous with the psychedelic experience. After conducting his textual research into the Mysteries, Ruck (1978:13) summarises the effects as follows:

There were physical symptoms, moreover, that accompanied the vision: fear and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea, and a cold sweat. Then there came the vision, a sight amidst an aura of brilliant light that suddenly flickered through the darkened chamber. Eyes had never before seen the like, and… the experience itself was in-communicable, for there are no words adequate to the task. Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by god. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light.

To see ‘the beginning and end of life’ and to ‘know that they are one’ surely casts light on the epiphanies had by terminal cancer patients in the relevant psychedelic studies. Wasson (1978:4) quotes Aristides the Rhetor to elaborate further on the effects: what the initiate experienced was “new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition”. Eleusis, says Aristides,

is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things that exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous. At what place in the world have more miraculous tidings been sung, and where have the dromena called forth greater emotion, where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?

The reference to a “rivalry between seeing and hearing” – a.k.a. synaesthesia[30] – makes sense only if placed in the context of the effects of the psychedelic experience, for it is the case that under the influence of psychedelics, auditory stimuli often manifest in a visual manner, and vice versa[31]. Wasson, who partook in Mesoamerican mushroom rites, puts it as follows: “For the sights that one sees assume rhythmical contours, and the singing of the shaman seems to take on visible and colorful shapes” (1978:4). Indeed, it was directly after he had partaken in the rites that Wasson made the link: “That there might be a common denominator between the Mexican mushroom Mystery and the Mystery of Eleusis had struck me at once. They both aroused an overwhelming sense of awe, of wonder” (Ibid).

Ruck (1978:19) provides further important commentary and description on the experience at Eleusis:

The ancient testimony about Eleusis is unanimous and unambiguous. Eleusis was the supreme experience in an initiate’s life. It was both physical and mystical: trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated: words are unequal to the task. Those symptoms are unmistakably the experience induced by an hallucinogen.

The word ‘hallucinogen’ and ‘psychedelic’ are, for the purposes of this article, synonymous, as are the words ‘psychoactive’ or ‘entheogen’. They are words that more often than not since the 1970s are used as pejoratives. It is important to note that beyond the confines of the failed war on drugs launched into full force during the time of the Nixon administration in the U.S.A., the experience that is facilitated by the use of a psychedelic or hallucinogen is often considered to be “the culminating experience of a lifetime”[32] (1978:12), or, as has just been seen via Ruck’s commentary, “the supreme experience in an initiate’s life”. Accepting the hypothesis that such a substance was used in the ceremony at Eleusis allows one to make sense of statements such as the following one made by Rosen (1978:423-424): “Spiritual and physical happiness is… the promise of Eleusinian initiation. … Our sources stress not only that the initiate will be happy in the afterworld, but that he will also be happy and prosperous in this life”[33]. I will refer to some of the likely sources mentioned by Rosen in the following sub-section, but at this stage it is important to emphasise that there are strong similarities between the effects of psychedelic therapy and the Eleusinian kykeon-drinking ritual: it is precisely the case that terminal cancer patients are ‘happier in this life’, as well as more prepared for their ‘journey into the afterworld’, after their psychedelic therapy; and in general, patients and initiates alike have mystical experiences, are struck by awe and wonder, feel as though they are part of a bigger and more meaningful whole, re-evaluate how they comprehend life and death, see visions and patterns and details they have never seen before, and so on. Ultimately, patients and initiates alike are transformed for the better, and the nature of the experiences that bring about the transformations seem to be conspicuously coterminous: if a psychedelic substance was not in use at Eleusis (and I can find no sources that suggest one was not in use), then certainly a state of consciousness was induced in initiates that perfectly matches the state of consciousness induced in participants in contemporary psychedelic studies.

Philosophy’s psychedelic character in Ancient Greece

Some of the sources Rosen mentions (Ibid) – the ones that indicate that the Eleusinian initiate “will be happy in the afterworld, but that he will also be happy and prosperous in this life”, may be the writings attributed to Plato, wherein, for example, the following is to be found: “the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated… that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods”[34]. Of importance to philosophers in particular is that, in these writings, “the mystics” are called “the true philosophers” (Ibid). The Eleusinian initiation process provides the context in which the word ‘mystic’ can be understood. The word has been seen to feature in some of the contemporary psychedelic studies already referred to. In an interview[35], Michael Pollan adds further clarity on the meaning of the word in the context of the psychedelic experience. He states that the psychedelic experience “feels to people like a mystical experience”: “it’s very spiritual, this sense of transcending this bag of bones we are and actually connect with larger entities” – ‘true philosophers’ are clearly placed within this ‘mystical’ context in the writings attributed to Plato. This happens again in Phaedrus, when reference is made to seeing “beauty shining in brightness – we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence”[36]. The ‘beatific vision’ is perfectly explained by contemporary reports of psychedelic experiences. It is worthwhile noting that these writings can be rendered most intelligible when read in conjunction with the ‘thesis’ and ‘explanation’ referred to by Ruck earlier, but might otherwise seem strange and out of place in absence of the mystical experience demonstrably accompanying a psychedelic experience. These writings are attributed to Plato, and Alfred North Whitehead has said that the “safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. Whether Plato was a real figure is irrelevant here; the writings have been extremely influential throughout Western philosophy, and they point to the centrality of the mystical experience, which is best understood in the context of the transformed state of consciousness guaranteed to be brought about by the ingestion of a psychedelic substance. Plutarch, in Progress and Virtue, offers some commentary on this transformation by way of an analogy, where again the emphasis is on the links between philosophy and ‘transformed consciousness’:

Just as persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle against one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence, so too at the beginning of philosophy: about its portals also you will see great tumult and talking and boldness, as some boorishly and violently try to jostle their way towards the repute it bestows; but he who has succeeded in getting inside, and has seen a great light, as though a shrine were opened, adopts another bearing of silence and amazement, and ‘humble and orderly attends upon’ reason as upon a god.

The seeing of a ‘great light’ and the adoption of a ‘bearing of silence and amazement’ are components of a psychedelic experience, and Plutarch, continuing the now familiar theme common amongst those who were initiated into the Mysteries, speaks of philosophy coterminously. Thomas Taylor, in his research into the Eleusinian Mysteries in 1891, records the same link. He writes, “Theon of Smyrna, in Mathematica, thus elegantly compares philosophy to these mystic rites”: “philosophy may be called the initiation into true sacred ceremonies, and the instruction in genuine Mysteries”. Accordingly, philosophers who have an interest in the origins of their discipline should in the light of these links surely cast aside negative opinions about the psychedelic experience and acknowledge the central role that the experience played in the ancient history and character of their discipline.

I have made some links between the Eleusinian experience and Ancient Greek philosophy, and I have foregrounded the ‘mystical’ transformation accompanying both of them; in the following sub-section I will again emphasise the transformative character of philosophy, albeit in different and more contemporary contexts, thereby highlighting the on-going transformative character of philosophy that may have its origins in mystical experiences best explained by psychedelic states of consciousness

By emphasising the above links between philosophy and the psychedelic experience, I am not suggesting that the direction taken by philosophy as a discipline since the time of the Ancient Greeks – almost exclusively a direction away from the altered states of consciousness central to the older philosophical endeavour at Eleusis – is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ direction. The process of change is universal, and philosophy as a discipline obviously cannot be exempt from this law. What I am suggesting, very specifically, is that the philosopher must acknowledge in the history of one’s discipline the high esteem – rather, the highest esteem – placed on the ‘initiatory’ experience facilitated at Eleusis, an experience that some researchers and authors acknowledge and argue to be one induced by psychedelics and which the Ancient Greeks equated with philosophy. A consequence of this acknowledgement is, at very least, that a philosopher cannot simply dismiss this type of experience without doing an injustice to the history of the discipline in which they participate – philosophers must take the experience seriously.

Philosophy and psychedelics: tools of transformation

I have already established that in the time of the Ancient Greeks the transformed state of mind cultivated by the (psychedelic) Eleusinian rituals was one coterminous with philosophy itself. Transformation is central here. Wasson (1978:5) speaks of the transformation as follows:

This newness of everything – it is as though the world had just dawned – overwhelms you and melts you with its beauty. Not unnaturally, what is happening to you seems to you freighted with significance, beside which the humdrum events of everyday are trivial. All these things you see with an immediacy of vision that leads you to say to yourself, “Now I am seeing for the first time, seeing direct, without the intervention of mortal eyes”. (Emphasis added).

Wasson could not have read Pierre Hadot’s work on the topic of philosophy as a way of life when he wrote those words, because chronologically Wasson precedes Hadot. Whether or not Hadot read Wasson’s work is uncertain, but after his research into ancient Greek and Helen philosophy, Hadot makes a remarkably similar observation[37] about the transformative power of philosophy as it was practiced in ancient times. Hadot (1995:257), elaborating on the notion of philosophy as a way of life, quotes Seneca on the contemplation of wisdom:  “I look at [wisdom] with the same stupefaction with which, on other occasions, I look at the world; this world that I quite often feel as though I were seeing for the first time” (emphasis added). Hadot (Ibid) comments on Seneca’s sentiment as follows:

If Seneca speaks of stupefaction, it is because he sometimes finds that he discovers the world all of a sudden, “as though [he] were seeing it for the first time.” At such moments, he becomes conscious of the transformation taking place in his perception of the world. Normally, he had not been in the habit of seeing the world, and consequently was not astonished by it. Now, all of a sudden, he is stupefied, because he sees the world with new eyes.

Hadot’s focus is on the practice of philosophy as a way of life, versus philosophy as a purely institutionalised, academic discipline, and I must stress here that in the essay Philosophy as a way of life, Hadot never mentions psychedelics. But the psychedelic experience as commented on by Wasson is described in exactly the same manner as Seneca describes the contemplation of wisdom, and Hadot emphasises the theme of transformation in a manner that further unites the effects of philosophy and psychedelics. In fact, Hadot indirectly provides some important insight into understanding what happens in the psychedelic experience by referring to some observations made by Bergson. Hadot is referring to Bergson in order to elaborate on the nature of the transformation brought about by philosophical perception. Having made strong links between the psychedelic experience and philosophy as practiced by the Ancients, I contend that the following account of the nature of philosophical transformation is fully coterminous with the psychedelic transformation. Hadot (1995:254) first identifies Bergson’s account of habitual perception, which is the perception aligned with utilitarianism and pragmatism, the modus operandi of the ‘advanced’ consumer competitive capitalist Christian industrial dominion-crazed ‘democracy’, or ACID (see Pittaway 2017: chapters 3 and 4), what I will soon refer to as the established model of humanity:

Life requires that we put on blinkers; we must not look to the right, to the left, or behind, but straight ahead, in the direction in which we are supposed to walk. In order to live, we must be selective in our knowledge and our memories, and retain only that which may contribute to our action upon things.

Habitual perception is contrasted with philosophical perception: These are Bergson’s words, quoted by Hadot (1995:253): “Might not the role of philosophy be to bring us to a more complete perception of reality, by means of a kind of displacement of our attention?” Hadot immediately comments on this philosophical ‘displacement of attention’ and emphasises the transformative power of philosophy as a way of life. It is important to note the relevance of these comments (1995:254) for what has been described about the psychedelic experience:

The ‘displacement of attention’ of which Bergson speaks… is in fact a conversion: a radical rupture with regard to the state of unconsciousness in which man normally lives. The utilitarian perception we have of the world, in everyday life, in fact hides from us the world qua world. Aesthetic and philosophical perceptions of the world are only possible by means of a complete transformation of our relationship to the world: we have to perceive it for itself, and no longer for ourselves.

There is much that can be said about this perceptual shift of our relationship to the world. I have argued elsewhere (Pittaway 2017:248-259) that this shift is of crucial importance for the ecological plight of the planet and its consequences for human ‘civilisation’: people seeing the world for itself rather than for themselves entails a dispensation completely different to ACID, which is the embodiment of exclusive pragmatism and utilitarianism that reduces nature to nothing but a standing reserve of resources for human consumption. It is not my purpose here to pursue this theme. What I am emphasising here is that the philosophical transformation described by Bergson and Hadot is coterminous with the transformation attained via the Eleusinian rituals and the psychedelic experience, and via this emphasis I assert that the psychedelic experience is of relevance to not only to philosophy as practiced beyond the walls of a classroom, but to any context in which the theme of transformation of this sort is foregrounded.

The transformational impact of practicing philosophy (versus merely talking about philosophy) and of using psychedelics is something that philosophers should be interested in for another good reason. Badiou (2009:74-75), who also does not mention psychedelics but does focus on philosophy and transformation, states the following:

Each time that philosophy confines itself to humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined, it diminishes itself, and in the end suppresses itself. It suppresses itself because its only use becomes that of conserving, spreading and consolidating the established model of humanity.

This is extremely bad news for any philosopher, or any philosophy, that wishes to address the problems of the present[38] with ‘more of the same’ that caused the problems in the first place: the problematic ingredients constituting the established model of humanity that is ACID. To address the problems of the present, it is necessary to look for remedies beyond the arena that caused the problems, i.e. beyond the Arena of ACID, and this is where the link between philosophy and transformational psychedelic rites of passage becomes so crucial. Assuming that one is interested in the transformative aspect of philosophy as depicted, to differing degrees, by Badiou, Hadot and Bergson, and acknowledging that the Eleusinian rituals are no longer on offer as a means by which to foster philosophical perception[39], it is perhaps the case that psychedelics present us with opportunities that, if taken, could help in transforming society for the better:

What today is resolved into a mere drug… was for [the ancient Greeks] a prodigious miracle, inspiring in [them] poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushrooms any more. Or do we need them more than ever?” (Wasson 1978:7)

For the purposes of this article, the mushroom is a symbol of a truly transformative experience, an experience that cannot, by its very nature (as depicted in this article so far), be ‘hijacked’ by the purely pragmatic and utilitarian agendas of ACID and its accompanying model of humanity – the initiate ineluctably sees the world anew[40], which requires seeing beyond the institutionalised, established model(s). Fortunately, the value of this truly transformative psychedelic experience has recently been acknowledged via studies such as the ones referred to in the first part of this article. An aura of reputability is beginning to accompany inquiries into the broad topic of psychedelics, a topic that may hold the key for collaboration across disciplines, cultures, and contexts.

Southern African indigenous cultural use of psychedelic plants

It is the case that in philosophical and academic contexts in Southern Africa in the early twenty-first century, considerable attention has been given to the issue of what an appropriate African philosophy and academy entails (I would add the issue of an appropriate African economy). Various focal points of this article may be able to contribute to this discussion, because the use of psychoactive plants and the induced ‘healing experiences’ have been part and parcel of indigenous cultures for many centuries, including African cultures. If I can substantiate this claim – that Southern African cultures did indeed make use of psychoactive plants, which induce in people a psychedelic alteration of consciousness – then I can make the following links in my argument: 1) The Eleusinian Mystery rituals were of central philosophical and cultural importance in Ancient Greece for a period spanning over two millennia. 2) The Eleusinian Mystery rituals almost certainly involved the use of a psychedelic/psychoactive substance, and absolutely did involve a transformation of consciousness coterminous with the psychedelic experience. 3) Philosophy as a practice, i.e. as a way of life and as philosophical perception, shares strong characteristics with the psychedelic state of consciousness. 4) Recent research into the effects of psychedelics confirms psychedelics to have profoundly transformative impacts on users. 5) Psychedelics (or psychoactive plants) have been used in Southern African cultural practices for centuries. 6) The use of psychoactive plants is an undeniable area of overlap considering points one to five.

The researcher J. F. Sobiecki has done the research that substantiates point number five above. In an article titled A review of plants used in divination in southern Africa and their psychoactive effects (2006), he found that of “85 species of plants that are used for divination by southern Bantu-speaking people”, “39 species (45 %) have other reported psychoactive uses, and a number have established hallucinogenic activity” (2006:333). He states that the “findings indicate that psychoactive plants have an important role in traditional healing practices in southern Africa” (Ibid). Sobiecki quotes (Ibid) the diviner Mahube with words that immediately foreground the similarity of Mahube’s experience to the psychedelic experience so far explored in this paper: “I eat medicines that work in my body like matches to dry wood. I do not open my eyes. It is not with my eyes that I see. My ancestors see for me. I see in a dream”. Sobiecki’s article is extremely well researched and referenced, and I need not reinvent this wheel, so to speak. Instead I will provide an extract that is typical of the thoroughness of the research and also indicative of the overwhelming evidence provided for the claim that psychoactive plants are widely used in indigenous Southern African cultural practice:

Some interesting terms for psychoactive plants exist, including bhayiskhobho (bioscope (cinema) in Zulu), otherwise known as the ‘mirror’ or ‘TV’, which refers to the effects of hallucinogenic plants such as the toxic Boophone disticha (L.f.) Herb. (see Hall 1994: 54). Another Zulu term, bonisele, describes several plant species that are used by initiate diviners to elicit divinatory powers and induce dreams of the ancestral spirits. The term is derived from the verb bona, and means “to see on my behalf” (L.C. Posthumus pers. comm.) or “to show me the light” (L. Maponya pers. comm.). The descriptions of the effects of bonisele plants on the initiate diviners are analogous with metaphysical ‘seeing’, transcendental enlightenment and revelation. An example of one such plant is Chamaecrista mimosoides (L.) Greene. Descriptive phrases for such plants also include ‘magical plants’ and ‘plants that arouse the spirits’.

In another article titled Psychoactive Ubulawu Spiritual Medicines and Healing Dynamics in the Initiation Process of Southern Bantu Diviners published in 2012, Sobiecki reports his findings as follows:

Findings reveal that there is widespread reliance on ubulawu as psychoactive spiritual medicines by the indigenous people of southern Africa to communicate with their ancestral spirits — so as to bring luck, and to treat mental disturbances. In the case of the Southern Bantu diviners, ubulawu used in a ritual initiation process acts as a mnemonic aid and medicine to familiarize the initiates with enhanced states of awareness and related psychospiritual phenomena such as enhanced intuition and dreams of the ancestral spirits, who teach the initiates how to find and use medicinal plants. The progression of the latter phenomena indicates the steady success of the initiates’ own healing integration.

Quite simply, in Southern African indigenous cultural practice, psychoactive plants play an important role, and they induce in the ‘user’ a state of consciousness that has at least some similarities to the psychedelic experience referred to in earlier parts of this paper. I share Sobiecki’s view (2012:219) that the psychedelic effects of the psychoactive plants used in Southern African indigenous cultures are generally less intense than in the cases of rituals elsewhere in the world where psychedelic substances are used, for example in the case of the Amazonian shamanistic use of ayahuasca. Sobiecki does suggest (Ibid), however, that the “purpose and results of the South American and South African plant use” is the same, i.e. “to learn healing knowledge”. This phrase, to learn healing knowledge, is a fitting catchphrase summarising the purpose of psychedelic use in both the Eleusinian Mystery ritual and the contemporary clinical applications of psychedelic therapies; it is also a fitting phrase for at least some aspects of the transformation brought about by philosophical perception in the context of philosophy as a way of life.

Considering the support just provided via Sobiecki for point number five, i.e. the point that psychoactive plants play an important role in Southern African indigenous culture, it is the case that the psychedelic experience is a commonality across points one to six. A common ground spanning across such a large expanse of time (i.e. from Ancient Greece through to medical and clinical contexts of the twenty-first century) and across such broad contexts (i.e. ancient philosophy, philosophy as a practice, philosophy as a transformational process, African indigenous cultures, and contemporary clinical research), is an invaluable tool for cohesion across contexts – it is a tool for inter-, trans-, and multi-disciplinary cooperation and cohesion, and one dismisses such a tool at the expense of such cooperation, as well as numerous other potential benefits. Rudgley (quoted in Roberts 2006) alludes to the danger of ignoring altered states of consciousness, and also some opportunities that can be gained from exploring them; Rudgley’s comments were made to motivate anthropological inquiry into altered states of consciousness, but the comments are relevant to any discipline:

Bearing in mind that humans have an innate need to experience altered states of consciousness, to ignore or repress our own natures in this way is to neglect our own capacities. What anthropology can do, by describing other cultures in which scientific and poetic approaches to truth are part of a holistic vision, is to remind us of the lack of harmony in the elements of our own second nature. It can indicate ways in which we may reach a better understanding of the importance of altered states of consciousness in both our collective and our personal lives.

Further implications

All of the features and characteristics of the psychedelic ‘peak experiences’ collated in this article are extremely positive. It is the case that contemporary psychedelic studies use psychoactive substances to achieve the peak experience; there is overwhelmingly convincing evidence to support the argument that a psychedelic substance was used during the Eleusinian Mysteries; and indigenous Southern African cultures employ a wide range of psychoactive substances. As mentioned earlier, there are some risks in the psychedelic undertaking. But as I have shown in this article so far and judging by the academic literature available on the topic, people who have used psychedelics responsibly have a deeper understanding of themselves after the experience, their places in the world, the world itself, and nature, and they conceive of being part of a bigger whole. They are happier, more optimistic, more grateful, see meaning and purpose in life, are more concerned about others, and so on. All of these are positive qualitative changes, changes that add up to a transformation of personal identity in the direction of a more actualised person. In the domain of collective experience, groups of people (i.e. communities) constituted by individuals who have had the aforementioned personal experiences, realisations, and epiphanies are far more likely to participate in a socially integrative and cohesive manner than if they had not had the experiences – this was hinted at in one of the studies referenced in the first sub-section of this paper, where ‘prosocial attitudes and behaviours’ were enhanced via the psychedelic experience. At very least, it would be extremely worthwhile to test this notion via further research and studies, i.e. the notion that people who have had a psychedelic experience are more likely to participate in socially integrative and cohesive manners. In other words, there are opportunities for further research into such an issue (as well as others), research that could be conducted in the spirit of multi-disciplinarity.

At an economic level, the opportunities for the growth of a psychedelic ‘industry’ are enormous, and this is again an area open to further research across disciplines. Such an industry would require ongoing research methodologically, qualitatively and quantitatively. Psychedelics would need to be grown or synthesised or both, and distributed and tested for safety measures. Practitioners (guides) would have to be trained to facilitate the psychedelic experience, and therapists would need to be trained for on-going follow-up psychotherapy sessions for the patients to successfully integrate the experience proactively into their lives. Psychedelic educational curricula and centres would need to be established, and teachers would need to be trained and employed to disseminate information. All manner of peripheral ‘services’ would be needed for the new psychedelic industry, thereby stimulating economic growth in a spirit of integration, social cohesion, and as I will suggest next, ecological sensitivity. In short, this is an ‘industry’ that would transform society in qualitatively and economically-quantitative beneficial directions.

In some of the studies referenced it was found that users of psychedelics developed a stronger connection with nature. This is important because it corresponds with the point made by Bergson, specifically about philosophical perception involving a transition from seeing the world for ‘ourselves’ to seeing it for ‘itself’. This transition is beneficial considering the ecological plight of the planet brought about by a human species operating under the assumptions of the materialistic Empire of ACID. People who have undergone the psychedelic experience, which is coterminous with the philosophical transition noted by Bergson, and who are accordingly more connected with nature, are unlikely to unquestioningly perpetuate obviously ecologically problematic practices (See Pittaway 2017: chapter 7).

The aforementioned beneficial personal, social, economic and ecological implications are reasons for hope in a dispensation otherwise dominated by the business-as-usual of ACID[41]. Previously disadvantaged communities, which are often constituted by the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa who are perhaps often culturally privy to the kinds of rituals in which psychoactive plants are used, can play important roles at all phases of the process in which rites-of-passage psychedelic ceremonies are conceptualised, tested, refined, standardised, and facilitated at the various stages that would constitute the process, i.e. pre- and post- ceremony integration of the experience.


Philosophy, and philosophers, simply cannot dismiss the psychedelic experience. The transformed perceptual state is an outcome of both the psychedelic experience and philosophy as a way of life – the ancients went so far as to equate philosophy with the ‘mystical’ state of consciousness often induced by the psychedelic experience, which is why the Eleusinian rituals (which transformed perception via an experience that either was literally psychedelic or at least fully coterminous with the psychedelic experience) were revered for so many centuries in Ancient Greece.

The psychedelic experience, coterminous with the transformation brought about by practising philosophy as the ancients did, shatters habitual perception, which is what Bergson suggested is the role of philosophy, a view shared by Hadot. Habitual perception is the purely pragmatic and utilitarian state of consciousness dominant in the model of humanity as it has been historically constituted, i.e. ACID, and Badiou suggests that philosophy is done a dis-service when the dominant model of humanity (i.e. ACID) is simply preserved. Accordingly, psychedelics can be seen as tools of transformation – indeed, psychedelics are being used in clinical contexts to achieve profound transformations in patients.

Science, in what might perhaps be the start of a turn toward the toppling of its historically dominant pragmatic and utilitarian character, has again started to focus on the profound impact of the psychedelic experience. The focus is still pragmatic in the sense that the experience is almost unanimously utilized for the treatment of psychological problems. But a consequence of the scientific focus on the impact of psychedelics is that the results show the experience to be inherently worthwhile, facilitating the transformation of the ‘initiate’ toward a fuller, actualised, integrated, reflective, aware self. Philosophy, if it is to be practiced in a manner free from ideological constraints, if it is to reconnect with the ancient practices from which it was birthed, if it is not to be confined to ‘discourse about philosophy’ and to on-going critiques of business-as-usual (strangely, critiques often in support of business-as-usual), can also pursue the opportunity to focus on this arena of transformative potential, and as a consequence partake in the exploration of altered states of consciousness that are relevant across cultures and contexts. It is with these thoughts in mind that I conclude with the resonant sentiments of Ruck (1978:17): “Now… those of us who have experienced the superior hallucinogens may join the fellowship of the ancient initiates in a lasting bond of friendship, a friendship born of a shared experience of a reality deeper far than we had known before”.



The author here acknowledges the Post-Doctoral research support provided to him via the NRF SARCHI Chair for Identity and Social Cohesion in Africa, as well as the research support he received during his PhD from the NRF and the University of the Free State.


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[1] Psilocybin is the most common mushroom molecule to produce a psychedelic effect.

[2] Lysergic acid diethylamide, known colloquially as ‘acid’.

[3] Ayauscha is the Amazonian brew made from several plants and ingredients, while DMT – N,N-Dimethyltryptamine – is the molecule that produces the psychedelic effect. DMT can be extracted and used in isolation from the brew.

[4] 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. I do not consider MDMA to be a psychedelic in the same category as the other listed psychedelics. Phenomenologically it certainly has psychedelic properties, but it is also considerably different to the other ‘more psychedelic’ compounds. I list it here because MAPS, the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies, has focused on MDMA assisted psychotherapy for tactical reasons. MAPS categorises MDMA as a psychedelic, and I will follow their lead.

[5] Here is some commentary on the propaganda accompanying the war on drugs: “Exaggerated risks of harm have contributed to the demonisation of psychedelic drugs as a social evil. But although this dangerous reputation — generated and perpetuated by the often disproportionately stiff penalties for their use — is helpful for law enforcement, it does not correspond to the evidence. Rather, the social prescription against psychedelic drugs that hinders properly controlled research into their effects and side effects is largely based on social and legal, as opposed to scientific, concerns. To maximise research into therapeutic benefits without exacerbating real social harms a legal structure that recognises this distinction is sorely needed”. accessed 9 May 2018

[6] “[O]n 17 July 1971, President Richard Nixon declared what has come to be called the ‘war on drugs’”. And “Despite decades of battling against narcotics, the levels of addiction, trafficking and violence continue to rise. The war on drugs has failed”. Article by Ed Vulliamy at accessed 9 May 2018.

[7] They were not merely legal, but were also the subjects of considerable attention in the scientific world, most notably LSD: “Most of the interest in psychedelic drugs was related to psychiatry and, by 1951, over 100 articles on LSD had been published in medical journals (Dyck 2005:383). Psychedelics had caught the interest of a great variety of people from writers and ethnobotanists to doctors and the military. The interest was caused by a broad range of reasons from scientific intrigue and pure intellectual curiosity to artistic inspiration and spirituality. By the time the general public began hearing about psychedelic drugs, there was already an established tradition of literary and medical research into their effects and uses”. accessed 9 May 2018

[8] Wasson is “considered the discoverer of the magic mushrooms, the man who launched the psychedelic movement, and is also considered the father of the field of ethnomycology”. accessed 11 May 2018. Wasson’s various involvements in life are remarkably diverse and attention-grabbing. The same source lists 27 different interesting biographical facts for Wasson, among which are the following: Wasson headed MK Ultra Subproject 58 (in which species of psychoactive mushrooms were collected for their potential use in mind-control applications by the military); he worked for JP Morgan; he directed a pharmaceutical company; strong links are discernable between him and various members involved in the J.F.Kennedy assassination. Being beyond the scope of this article, these facts should be checked further for accuracy.

[9] In this article, I am not espousing support for the ‘recreational’ use of psychedelics, regardless of my personal opinion on the matter. In an interview hosted by Tim Ferris (see reference list, Ferris 2018; hereafter referred to as the FERRIS-POLLAN interview), Michael Pollan contrasts (at 26 minutes into the interview, i.e. 0:26:00) the recreational approach to the “orchestrated guided experience” – this latter approach is foregrounded in this article. The approach, says Pollan, is a “fundamentally different way of using the same chemical” used in the recreational approach. The orchestrated guided experience is the context of psychedelic-use focused on in this article. On the other hand, much later in the episode, Pollan points out that the vast majority of the scientific study of psychedelics is focused on treating ‘sick people’, but that their use in treating ‘well’ people should not be overlooked. This treatment need not be done ‘recreationally’, but certainly can be done in contexts less ‘clinical’ than the scientific study. Here is Pollan quoting Bob Jesse: “Jesse was ultimately less interested in people’s mental disorders than in their spiritual well-being – in using entheogens [a.k.a. psychedelics] for what he calls ‘the betterment of well people’”. See accessed 14 May 2018. In this article I indirectly provide support for the claims that the ancient Greeks did, in fact, treat ‘well people’, that the psychedelic experience can help ‘well people better themselves’, and that the Southern African indigenous use of psychedelics also ‘betters well people’.

[10] And indeed any ‘older culture’ in which psychoactive plants were used to alter consciousness, which is to say all older cultures, with one notable exception being the Inuit, who had no psychoactive plants growing considering the climate in which they live – Michael Pollan mentions this in the Ferris-Pollan interview.

[11] I borrow this phrase, ‘the new science of psychedelics’, from the title of Michael Pollan’s 2018 book.

[12] Usually the ‘randomised double-blind approach’, where a psychedelic substance is administered to one group of test subjects, and a placebo to another group. Neither the medical staff nor the test subjects know who receives the psychedelic or who receives the placebo, thereby circumventing possible biases in observed results.

[13] This is a study sponsored by NYU. See accessed 28 May 2018

[14] UCLA has also sponsored similar studies, for example a 2011 study titled “Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer”. See accessed 28 May 2018

[15] The fact that word ‘mystical’ appears in the context of this clinical study (and a few more to appear in this sub-section) is important because it will appear later in this article again; the use of a psychedelic substance is explicitly linked to the mystical experience recorded in the quoted study, which is important to remember when the word is encountered in the context of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as in the context of philosophers being the ‘true mystics’.

[16] This is a study sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. See accessed 28 May 2018

[17] This study was also funded by Johns Hopkins University. See accessed 28 May 2018

[18] Note that these in-quote references are not included in the reference list at the end of this article. The in-quote references can be traced via the specific paper by Lyons and Carhart-Harris, namely “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”.

[19] accessed 28 May 2018

[20] See the archives of articles and books at the MAPS, Heffter Institute, and Beckley Foundation websites.

[21] accessed 28 May 2018

[22] Ibid.

[23] accessed 28 May 2018

[24] If a person has a predisposition to a psychological disorder, psychedelic-use may trigger the disorder. Pollan discusses this in the Ferris-Pollan interview at 1:14:00. It is one of the only known risks of taking a psychedelic, other than a person ‘freaking out’ from an unfamiliar experience and doing something to injure themselves, which is easily prevented if the psychedelic experience occurs in the appropriate set and setting; and, it must be noted, people ‘freak out’ and injure themselves for a variety of reasons. Regarding the potential for psychological problems to be ‘unlocked’ via the psychedelic experience, potential patients are screened heavily for such predispositions prior to being accepted for psychedelic assisted therapy. Pollan points out, however, that a person with a predisposition to a psychological disorder would, in the absence of a psychedelic experience, likely have their condition triggered by something else in life, such as trauma. Interestingly, as I have already shown in this article, psychological disorders are being successfully treated with psychedelics, putting under the spotlight the set and setting in which psychedelics are used; hence an unguided, recreational use of a psychedelic not being advocated, especially for the first few experiences.

[25] “The Sacred Way (the road from Athens to Eleusis) was the only road, not a goat path, in all of central Greece”. accessed 9 May 2018.

[26] Remember that the word ‘mystical’ appeared in various study extracts in the previous sub-section.

[27] See Hoffman’s entire pharmacological breakdown of the psychoactive ergot options available to the Ancient Greeks, 1978:8-11.

[28] See a summary of the objections by the commentator, Ivan Valencic in Jahrbuch fur Ethomedizin und Bewusstseinsforschung (Has the Mystery of the Eleusinian Mysteries Been Solved?) at accessed 9 May 2018

[29] I say ‘proper’ because I am denoting the ingestion of a sufficient quantity of a psychoactive molecule to induce an appropriately powerful state of altered consciousness. I am not referring to potentially comparable altered states of consciousness induced by, for examples, meditation or sex: proponents of the claim that ‘you can get there by other means’ almost always have not taken a psychedelic substance. See footnote 39 for further commentary on this matter.

[30] Synaesthesia was reported in one of the psychedelic studies featuring in the first sub-section of this paper.

[31] Pollan explains the neurological mechanisms involved here in the Ferris-Pollan interview.

[32] Remember that in one study it was reported that patients “rated their psilocybin experiences among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives”.

[33] In the Ferris-Pollan interview (00:39:00), Pollan describes the psychedelic experience as entailing a process of ego-dissolution. He comments that the experience of ego dissoulution “feels to people like a mystical experience”, and adds that ego dissolution “is a kind of rehearsal for death”, which is an insight into why the Eleusinian experience may somewhat prepare an initiate for the afterlife, and ease anxiety in cancer patients regarding their imminent deaths. On this topic of ego dissolution, I would add that it may hold the key to why some people experience ‘bad trips’ or ‘freak out’ or even have a psychological disorder triggered by a psychedelic experience – if the ego is extremely guarded (due, perhaps, to a past trauma or a narcissistic personality type) or over-inflated, then the experience of ego dissolution may be frightening or even itself traumatic.

[34] See accessed 2 May 2018

[35] The Ferris-Pollan interview, 00:39:00.

[36] accessed 2 May 2018

[37] Of course, Wasson could have read Seneca’s work and quoted the comment about seeing for the first time.

[38] Whether it is the role of a philosopher to address the problems of the present is up for debate. However, as a human being informed by philosophy, one may be better equipped to attempt to address the problems of the present, and it is more often than not the case that philosophers (perhaps in their capacities as human beings) do attempt to address the problems of the present. See Hadot’s account of ‘communitary engagement’, 1995:274, wherein he depicts ‘philosophy as a way of life’ as something that does entail action.

[39] Hadot does not refer to the Eleusinian Mysteries in his essay, but rather suggests that philosophical perception can be attained “a number of exercises”: intense meditation…, the ever-renewed awareness of the finitude of life, examination of one’s conscience, and, above all, a specific attitude toward time” (1995:268). I have practiced meditation and engaged in the other activities mentioned by Hadot. My contention is that the psychedelic experience, facilitated in the appropriate set and setting, will do in a few hours what years of meditation practice and the like might do, and that the foregrounding of the transformative (psychedelic) experience facilitated at Eleusis goes some way in explaining the ‘philosophical’ perception valorised in ancient Greek contexts. I would encourage anyone to forge their own practice of meditation and contemplation, but it is clear that, in ACID, utilitarian demands leave very little time for the average person to take their practice to the necessary level at which a considerable shift in perception can occur. The right dose of a psychedelic ‘does what it says on the can’, to speak colloquially, and it does it extremely quickly.

[40] It is my view that this psychedelic quality of ‘seeing anew’ is one that may be responsible for some of the negative reactions people may have to the psychedelic experience. Seeing anew can be profoundly positive if the initiate has fostered the necessary focus (and this is where meditation, etc., can play such an important role in preparing for the psychedelic experience), or been guided by facilitators or therapists, to see the great potential of such a ‘cleansed’ perceptual platform. But the experience of seeing ‘the old’ or the familiar dissipate may also be extremely frightening if an initiate is unready for such an experience – the temporary ‘dissolution of the ego’ may feel like death proper!

[41] The business-as-usual of ACID is problematic for various reasons. An example is seen in the realm of ecology: Foster, Clark and York comment (2010:155): “It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Available evidence now strongly suggests that, under a regime of ‘business as usual’ with no substantial lessening of the drivers of environmental destruction, we could be facing within a decade or so a major ‘tipping point,’ leading to irrevocable and catastrophic climate change”. Business as usual has not slowed; on the contrary, it continues to accelerate, as do the various indicators of ecological stability – see Pittaway 2017.

Mini ‘Peterberg’ batch burner

Peterberg style batch box burner. Different to the ‘J-tube’ style rocket stoves I have made so far in that all the wood is placed in the batch box at once. The idea is that the precise, calculated dimensions of the batch box facilitate a maximum-efficiency combustion of the wood.

No idea what I will end up doing with the burner yet. I made it out of sheer curiosity. What is really nice is that this tiny one is move-able by two people.

Small solar power system at off-grid cabin

This post is about the small solar power system that provides us with light (dc, i.e. direct current) and power for a few things at our off-grid cabin.

The ‘few things’ I refer to are:

  • phone charging (dc)
  • laptop (occasional use) – direct power (dc) and battery charge (ac, i.e. alternating current)
  • hair clippers (ac)
  • headlight battery charging (dc)
  • cordless drill battery charging (ac)
  • and a few other miscellaneous things

Here’s the panel. It’s a 128W, 24V panel that seems to work excellently with the 12V system:

Bolted and locked to the roof:

MPPT controller/regulator and breaker switches:

The two batteries, 102Ah each, connected to each other to maintain the 12V system config. Also, the 600W inverter used for AC conversion:

Small diy LED light; there are several of these inside and outside the cabin:

The car radio/stereo and speakers powered directly:

The DC jack that connects to various devices:

The little phone charger job I threw together:

The small inverter that connects to the previously pictured jack and converts 12v to 13-24v depending on requirement. The laptop runs at 19v; I had to find an old power supply for my laptop, cut off the connection, and wire it into a new connection:

A close-up of the small inverted and male-female jacks:



Rocket thermal mass heater

Materials used:

Old boiler/geyser barrel.

Fire bricks for the burn chamber.

All other bricks are standard bricks.

Ceramic fibre board for the riser inside the barrel.

Clay and sand mortar between all standard bricks.

Fire-cement (very tiny amount) between burn chamber fire bricks.

Cob plaster to seal barrel and around burn chamber.

(All bricks will eventually be cobbed).

Eco-brick reading room build at Jikani community centre

A few pics of the start of the eco-brick build at Jikani community centre in Hogsback.

Each eco-brick contains approximately 1 full garbage bag of plastics that would otherwise end up in landfill.

So far 4000 eco-bricks have been collected. That’s 4000 garbage bags that have been diverted from landfill.

The eco-bricks will constitute the inner wall material for what will be a community room utilised for reading and will probably house a few community computers.

Not only is the utilisation of eco-bricks diverting plastics from landfill; it eliminates the use of a large number of bricks, cement and other building materials that would otherwise be used for the build.

The mortar between the eco-bricks is cob mortar: a mix of clay, sand and straw.

Reflections on a transformative philosophy talk that face-planted

Yesterday I gave a talk at a weekly philosophy seminar hosted by a prominent South African university. The talk was called Humanity as it has been historically constituted: what lies beyond. The first half of the talk was a short summary of Badiou and Žižek’s depiction of the role of philosophy ‘in the present’. They argue that philosophy occurs when confronted with the incommensurable; that it involves the creation of new problems; that it pertains to the redefinition of human nature. Philosophy can cut through ‘particularities’ and focus on universals and the ‘inhuman’; it changes the terms and concepts of the debate, elucidates choice, and spreads light on the distance between power and truths. That philosophy cannot confine itself to the established model of humanity, because each time that it does so, its only function becomes that of conserving and spreading the established model. I write in-depth about these ideas, as well as others, in the first half of the seventh chapter of my PhD, which can be accessed at this site.

The established model of humanity is Promethean; or, reworded, humanity as it has been historically constituted is Promethean. It does not take a huge leap in reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that if the role of philosophy is not to conserve the established model, then this role involves not spreading the Promethean. I define the Promethean attitude in my study as one “inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility”, and it “penetrates the secrets of nature… through violence” (Hadot 2008:91-98). Hadot points out that Promethean ‘man’ “demands the right of dominion over nature” (2008:95) and furthermore that the attitude “has engendered our modern civilization and the worldwide expansion of science and industry” (2008:101).

Hadot is demonstrably correct. If one does any research on the following industries – fossil fuel, petrochemical, agricultural, construction, mining, meat and fish industries, ‘bio-tech’, and fractional reserve money industry – then one will see a clear cause-effect relationship between the industries and large-scale phenomena such as loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, anthropogenic climate change, deforestation, loss of topsoil, fresh water loss, landfill waste, associated pollution, toxic and chemical waste, overpopulation, and so on. As Hadot suggests, the Promethean attitude has driven the expansion of what I call ACID (under inspiration from the Norwegian philosophers Hoyer and Kvaloy), the Promethean writ large: ‘advanced’ (Christian) competitive consumer capitalist industrial democratic dominion. After a few years of research, I found the pieces of the puzzle I’ve just mentioned – these pieces constitute the established model of humanity. I am confident that I offered no ‘argument’ in describing the established model. Instead, I simply did the research, and compiled it into a few chapters constituting the first half of my PhD.

The first half of the seminar talk was the summary of Badiou and Žižek’s description of the role of philosophy in the present. Thereafter I pointed out that the established model is Promethean, and that the relevant industries and ecological destruction are part and parcel of the established model. I then moved on to point out, more or less, that the realm of ‘the Orphic’ is something of a counter-balancing force to the Promethean. “Orpheus… penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony”; and “the Orphic attitude… is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness” (2008:91-98). The research I did for my PhD led me to consider the following as helpful for the Orphic agenda, if indeed there is such a thing as an Orphic agenda: older cultures, Hancock’s civilization with amnesia, Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, Hawken’s blessed unrest, Eisenstein’s sacred economics, the Occupy Movement, the Zeitgeist Movement, and deep ecology.

I covered a few other things in the talk, like the fact that ACID does not ‘do real dialectical change’ (a conclusion for which I provided premises in the seminar and in my study), and that the Orphic realm in general, as well as permaculture principles, are attuned to philosophical universality, but I’ve mentioned most of the main focal areas in this post. Important to mention is what I included as a caveat: I am not throwing the babies of Promethean ‘progress’ out with the bathwater of Promethean ecocide. I fully acknowledge that there are many benefits for humans that have arisen from the reign of the Promethean. There is also a real and worrying ‘flipside’ to Promethean ‘progress’ that can be seen if one looks at the disease, discomfort, inequality, patriarchy, racism, and so on, that is demonstrably caused by the spread of ACID. These (and other) issues aside, it is clear that benefits have come at the expense of a diverse and healthy ecology, the very thing needed for human beings to survive on this beautiful planet. I also made it clear that I am not advocating a radical shift from the dominance of the Promethean to a mostly Orphic dispensation – this would be completely unrealistic, because such giant strides are prevented for various reasons, some of which I uncover in the fourth chapter of my study.
I certainly was suggesting that a useful ‘philosophical tool’ is the Orphic-Promethean spectrum, on which one can conceptually position different actions, activities, lifestyles, choices, industries, attitudes, beliefs, ventures (business and otherwise), manifestations of government, theories, and so on. I’m not sure if I mentioned this in the seminar, but there is surely no ‘purely Promethean’ or ‘purely Orphic’ manifestation of being. But ACID is definitely a form of ‘civilisation’ with heavily Promethean features, features I identify in my study and which I identified in the talk. ACID, when placed on the conceptual spectrum I have described, is weighted almost at the far Promethean end of the spectrum. My contention is that the conceptual process (of considering where between the two ‘incommensurable positions’ of the spectrum an activity or action or choice lies) is a philosophical activity. How one actualises a repositioning toward the Orphic may not be philosophical; it may be informed by a philosophical process, but the following remark by Badiou makes clear that particular decisions are not necessarily philosophical: a philosophical commitment “is foreign. And when it is simply commonplace, when it does not possess this foreignness, when it is not immersed in this paradox [of incommensurability], then it is a political commitment, an ideological commitment, the commitment of a citizen, but it is not necessarily a philosophical commitment. Philosophical commitment is marked by its internal foreignness.”

So in the final few minutes of my talk, I made it excessively clear that I may be stepping beyond the philosophical ‘commitment’ highlighted by Badiou. I may have offered a commitment of a citizen, a researcher, an academic, a human being, a person who knows the value of treading softly on our home planet that has been stomped upon for so long. In one presentation slide – the final one – I pointed out that the legalisation of Cannabis in South Africa would be – in my opinion – one of the only ways to shift the general collective societal attitude slightly away from the far Promethean end of the spectrum toward the Orphic end. A brief look at the legalisation of Cannabis in the USA will show how successful legalisation has been. Economically it’s a no-brainer. Cultivation is instrumentally and inherently uplifting. Millions of meaningful jobs can be created where cultivators spend time working with plants and natural medicines. I need to write a post about just how socially, economically and ecologically uplifting I contend the legalisation of Cannabis will be in South Africa, and about how I contend the legalisation process can roll out, but for now I simply would like to reinforce what I was suggesting yesterday: that this relatively small change could go a considerable way to shifting attitudes away from the now-dominant Promethean end of the spectrum toward somewhere closer to the middle of the spectrum.

I then pointed out that very reputable experiments and research are being done at Johns Hopkins University and at MAPS (and elsewhere) on the benefits of controlled use of Psilocybin, and suggested that controlled, legal use of the substance would go quite far in initiating people into the Orphic attitude. I am not suggesting that anyone be forced to use the substance, but rather that if one wishes to have such an experience, then it could easily be incorporated into South African culture. Indeed, the dominance and growing prevalence of Promethean attitudes in our country has turned our culture into a consumer-culture, which is to say no culture at all. Huxley’s Island demonstrates what such a ritual use of Psilocybin could look like – and, to me, it looks great. The novel demonstrates a culture I would proudly call a culture. And, I contend, introducing an optional ritual affords possibilities to further create meaningful jobs in a ‘health industry’ that can have many (Orphic) side-branches. Legalisation of Cannabis, and the eventual availability of ‘initiatory’ experiences like those associated with Psilocybin, are, in my considered opinion, aspects of a society that is transforming in a manner not completely dominated by the business-as-usual of the established Promethean model.

That’s what I presented, more or less. Then I was crucified, more or less! The responses were brutal. Okay, one young man with a glitter in his eye agreed that the ‘mystical experience’ facilitated by Psilocybin were extremely helpful. But all the other responses were extremely critical… despite my caveats and explicit drawing of attention to where the ‘safe’, summarised philosophy ended and the ‘un-philosophical’ commitments of a ‘citizen’ began. I was told that I was being Promethean in ‘othering’ aspects of ACID, which is a strange response seeing as I had made the disclaimer that I am not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but rather trying to encourage a process whereby a spectrum is delineated and ‘particulars’ can be placed on the spectrum, with the hope that the imbalance toward the Promethean end is identified and problematised, and where the “distance between power and truths” (2009:8) is brought to light – which, by the way, are aspects of the role of philosophy as depicted by Badiou and Žižek. I was told that I was bundling all of the world’s problems into “one thing”, which was a surprise seeing as I identified dozens of industries and components of underlying attitudes that constitute the Promethean. ‘Stoners’, I was told, would achieve nothing in response to the world’s problems, because they would sit around and do nothing all day, except for maybe party; strange then that Silicon Valley is populated by ‘stoners’ and ‘trippers’ of all sorts who have pioneered some of the most influential endeavours of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I was told that in older cultures humans died at age 35, so things are better now; how many times have we heard that one, and how few people know that it is at worst a complete myth (see here), or at best a complex issue that cannot be reduced into the view that was leveled at me as criticism of my argument.

My favourite criticism came when most seminar attendants had departed: there is no ecological crisis, I was told. That what human beings do with our industries and our capitalist economy is progress. When I asked what was meant by the word ‘crisis’, and when given the example of stage one cancer, the response was that stage 1 cancer is not a crisis; stage 4, I was told, is a crisis, which I take to mean that stages 2 and 3 are not seen as crises either. Stages 1, 2 and 3 are problems, I was told, not crises. This was very odd to me. It is easy to demonstrate that the planet does have early stages of cancer – maybe not stage 4, granted, but I would think stages 2 or 3 – but the situation is not akin to when a person gets cancer and seeks treatment, because for the earth, under the current Promethean regime, there is no treatment. Some very respectable thinkers have made the cancer analogy. Joel Kovel (2002:51), for example, speaks of “the cancerous imperative to expand” that is characteristic of the global economy. Paul Hawken (2007:3) suggests that we live on a planet with “a life-threatening disease”, and James Lovelock (2009:46-47) also uses the ‘sick patient’ analogy. Foster, Clark and York, in their book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2010:1) all agree and argue that “a deep chasm has opened up in the metabolic relation between human beings and nature – a metabolism that is the basis of life itself. The source of this unparalleled crisis is the capitalist society in which we live”. They also add (2010:14) that if “business as usual continues, the world is headed within the next few decades for major tipping points along with irreversible environmental degradation, threatening much of humanity”. Thomas Princen (2010:32) explains the following paradox: “the economy depends on increasing consumption, but ever-increasing consumption strains ecosystems, both resources (soil and water, for instance) and waste sinks (the oceans and the atmosphere). Before tackling this paradox head-on, let’s turn the question of consuming less on its head. A system that grows endlessly crashes. Think of cancer cells, debt-ridden mortgages, fisheries. It defies logic, not to mention a few well-known laws of physics (like thermodynamics), to presume that with continuing growth in consumption – that is, continuing growth in the total throughput of material and energy through our economy – the current economy will not crash.” So maybe the Promethean dispensation of ACID is only in stages 2 or 3 of having cancer, not 4, but the fact that the Promethean trajectory continues unabated (i.e. no treatment), if not at an increasingly accelerated speed, should give every sober-minded individual cause for alarm. Whether or not you call this a crisis is up to you, but it is certainly more than ‘a problem’.

Strangely, I was happy to take the criticisms. I gave the talk because I feel something of a responsibility to try and create awareness of the issues of the Promethean gone mad, and to try and suggest what remedies could look like. This was not well received yesterday, but I feel like I am at least trying to do something in the face of such overwhelming odds. On reflection, I feel that my ‘less orthodox’ suggestions were more in the spirit of the role of philosophy in the present: as I have quoted already, a philosophical commitment “is foreign. And when it is simply commonplace, when it does not possess this foreignness, when it is not immersed in this paradox [of incommensurability], then it is a political commitment, an ideological commitment, the commitment of a citizen, but it is not necessarily a philosophical commitment. Philosophical commitment is marked by its internal foreignness.” The responses I received from various members of the group highlighted the foreignness of my contributions, and also highlighted something incommensurable between us. I was certainly not offering commonplace contributions.

The group consisted mainly of analytical philosophers – they are used to knit-picking away at arguments. I have done this too, and there is value to this commonplace activity. But I spend more time these days trying to conceptualise and actualise ‘alternatives’ (for lack of a better word). I do this for my own sake, but also for the sake of others who are trying to introduce ‘alternatives’ into the mix and thereby, ever so slightly, together inoculate the Promethean pot with Orphic spores and keep hope alive that little by little we can balance ourselves away from the far Promethean end of the spectrum. I am not sure if this will amount to much, but I am dedicated to continuing this “strange commitment”: “Genuine philosophical commitment – the kind which is immersed in the incommensurable and summons the choice of thought, staging the exceptions, creating distances and, especially, distancing from forms of power – is often a strange commitment” (Badiou 2009:23). I am happy that I tried to “change the concepts of the debate” (2009:51), and I wonder how members of the group would feel when revising some of the features of the role of philosophy (as depicted by Badiou and Zizek) and thereafter reflecting on the ‘feedback’ I was given – ‘criticisms’ is a far more fitting word. Are you, as philosophers, happy to purely occupy a place in the established model of humanity, and if you are, are you a philosopher? Pure pen pushing is not an act of philosophy, unless, perhaps, the pen is pushed in the ‘transformative’ spirit depicted by Badiou and Žižek. With this in mind, I will conclude with the words of Karl Marx, and remind one that ‘the world’ in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is characterised by a massive imbalance of Promethean characteristics: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

Podcast: Rudi on Vipassana meditation and walking South Africa

Rudi, me, and co

In this Perspective Project Podcast, Rudi and I have a conversation about his well-established meditation practice Vipassana style, as well as his 4500+ km walk around South Africa. We also touch upon several different themes and topics during the conversation.  The opening guitar riff is Rudi’s creation too; the full acoustic track can be heard after the conversation. Enjoy.

Download at 128kbps (113mb): DOWNLOAD HERE.


DIY compost toilet – urine diversion using watering can as separator

This is an upgrade of our compost toilet:


A nice big urine catchment area, and the usual size bucket for the humanure:


I cut a watering can to serve as the urine diversion part of the system:


The shortened spout of the watering can rests just within a funnel, which is connected to pipe exiting the toilet box:


A close up of the first attempt at the funnel; note that the tape lost its stickyness after several very hot days, and thereafter I wired the funnel to the pipe connections:

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