Battle (of Visions) for the Soul of the World.

Introductory heads-up/clarifier: A couple of months ago I did a deep dive into a recent book by Professor Jem Bendell called Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse, (2023). That book was a several-years-long project that arose out of his paper “Deep Adaptation” that went viral in 2019. It’s a powerful and disturbing book . . . and hard to argue with on some of the key points, especially the metrics of our current multi-level predicament, or “polycrisis” as some have labelled this time.

Also, please accept that my intention in writing about this difficult subject is not to add to anyone’s feelings of helplessness and anxiety. I’m calling on the inner warrior of myself and anyone else willing to give consideration to the challenges humanity faces at this unprecedented nexus moment. I and many others believe that by acknowledging the gravity of our predicament, a great many more people will roll up their sleeves and participate in the inner and outer work necessary to shift the trajectory of the human enterprise.

And now, to the heart of the matter.

Maybe you find the implications of the bald declaration in the title of this piece too dramatic, too black and white, either/or, good vs evil, good guys vs bad guys. But there is indeed a battle underway. Much of it is unaddressed in mainstream discourse, is often beneath the level of conscious awareness, and is obscured from the sight of those who don’t look under the covers. It’s a battle of ideas, a battle of overarching narratives that will likely determine the direction of the human enterprise toward an inevitable dead end or a possible reconfiguration and revitalization—or as Jem Bendell says in Breaking Together, a “deep adaptation”.

Qualifier: The battle lines aren’t always drawn sharply into a simplistic dichotomy between the good and the bad, the visionary and the willfully blind, the altruistic and the selfish. On this all-important issue humans are spread along a spectrum, with many of us mixed in our loyalties, struggling with competing urges and worldviews. (See David R. Loy’s delineation of two modes of being below). In my attempt to clarify the differences between the two opposing worldviews, I’m basically describing the more clearly defined positions/mindsets on opposing sides of the divide.

But regardless of the blurred lines along that continuum, I believe it really does come down to two diametrically opposed worldviews and thus drivers of action in the world.

Please excuse me in advance as I do my best to avoid unhelpful generalizations and woolly thinking in describing these two opposed positions. Many great thinkers and visionaries more astute and realized than I am have addressed this central concern of our existence and its impact on planetary life from various angles. But I have been focusing on this central concern for a long time and have been particularly laser-focused in the last couple of years as evidence of deepening crisis accumulates. So you might think of this essay as a kind of primer whose intention is to help anyone who could benefit from it clarify their understanding and put internal and external priorities into intelligent and functional perspective.

On one side of the battle are those who, again, in a generalized sense, see life as solely or predominantly material, competitive, and in its extreme versions, even—as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously said in his 1651 book Leviathan—”nasty, brutish, and short.”

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987) called this attitude the “setting sun mentality” — Life is rife with struggle. Every “man” for himself. No uplifting vision. Its dominant characteristic is fear, however occluded, sublimated, and unconscious it may reside in any particular individual. It’s fear of loss of control, of losing out or falling behind in an unforgiving game of life, of not being able to protect oneself, of being overwhelmed by the tsunami of unprecedented change and chaos, and perhaps by the essentially ungraspable mystery of existence altogether. To a great degree, our species is gripped by a spiritual disconnection from our true selves, from our interwoven interdependence with all life.

And so our confusion and anxiety drive the struggle to grasp onto the ungraspable, to fill the hole that can’t be filled, or at least can only seem to be filled temporarily. It’s a universal problem, but one that different people deal with in dramatically different ways that now have serious consequences for the health and sustainability of all inhabitants of the planet.

In his 2003 book The Great Awakening, (available as a free download) Buddhist scholar David R. Loy wrote succinctly of these two modes. “One mode of being in the world involves trying to stabilize ourselves by controlling and fixating the world we are in, so that it becomes less threatening and more amenable to our will.”1. (I’ll quote the other mode further down in this piece.)

At the core, people firmly in the grip of that mode do not trust life. As Jem Bendell points out in Breaking Together, arguably the most pernicious and dangerous impetus of that mentality is coming from elites. What Professor Bendell calls “Imperial Modernity” and its expansionist monetary system that like a cancer must continually grow, is driving elites to double down on accumulating wealth and power while standing aggressively in the way of what has to be done as wealth inequality increases and the liveability of the planet deteriorates.

Put in somewhat crude terms—and of course generalizing again—what that comes down to is that to a great and troubling degree the wrong people are running things in the material world for the wrong reasons. In the hands of some of the wealthiest and most powerful, that mentality has a death grip on every key aspect of material life.* Our food systems, our healthcare systems (to varying degrees depending on the country), and so many of the products and services we use are all profit-driven—the diametric opposite of a service motivation.

*On that point, a new term has been making its way around some circles—”technofeudalism.” In his book by that name (Technofeudalism: What Killed Capitalism (2024), former finance minister of Greece Yannis Varfoukanis proposes that we’ve have moved beyond Capitalism and entered a new form of economy based on control of our identity, attention, and consciousness via the digital realm.

Meanwhile, some would argue that an attitude of service—at the very least in the realm of economic exchange—is the only sane and sustainable motivation for the present and future well-being of the inhabitants of this planet. Cynics might dismiss that cosmology as hopelessly unrealistic and contrary to human nature. But “Imperial Modernity” is arguably a far-from-equilibrium anomaly in the history of world cultures. The “gift economy” as it’s sometimes labeled has been central to numerous smaller traditional societies for example. On that topic you might want to check out Charles Eisenstein’s excellent book Sacred Economics (revised edition 2020).

The influence of the money system itself is a huge and complex subject that Bendell dives deeply into and that we won’t be exploring further here except for a quick comment. Again, we’re all ruled by it and it keeps us in chains to at least some degree. Pulitzer Prize winning author (The Denial of Death) Ernest Becker wrote in Escape from Evil, that for those fully in the grip of the material illusion, “Money becomes the distilled value of all existence…a single immortality symbol, a ready way of relating the increase of oneself to all the important objects and events in one’s world.”2.

What’s essential to understand about that mode of being is that it’s rapidly becoming more difficult to “stabilize ourselves”. The illusion of material security is showing signs of crumbling (though of course such security has long been out of reach for huge swaths of humanity.) The fallout over the coming years and decades is all but certain to be dramatic. The less stable material conditions become, the greater the danger of clinging harder out of fear. Many of us know that fear motivation is extremely unskillful and produces a lot of bad and dangerous choices.

It’s beyond the scope of this short piece to elaborate on the possible manifestations of fear mentality in an increasingly less secure world. The two most obvious behaviors that spring to mind are: desperate attempts to reassure oneself by supporting charismatic sociopaths who make false promises of safety based on lies; the violence that can result from that kind of panic and “othering” of perceived threats and enemies; and even large numbers of people becoming untethered for no reason they recognize – just going crazy and acting out. We’re already seeing more of that.

“Don’t let it bring you down, it’s only castles burning,
So find someone who’s turning, and you may come around.” – singer/songwriter Neil Young

Then there are those on the other side of this somewhat blurred dividing line. The second half of the quote by David R. Loy from above says, “The other mode involves a very different strategy: giving priority to opening ourselves up to the world and a greater acceptance of the open-ended impermanence of our existence. That means not allowing our concern for controlling the world to dominate the way we respond to the world.”3. Some are coming around tentatively, conflicted by opposing motivations and understanding but for whom perhaps it’s beginning to sink in that the fear-based, everyone-for-themselves, double-down-on-security mode is multilevel dysfunctional.

Those for whom that realization has sunk in and who are willing to join the “fight” might be deserving of the term warriors, as in warriors in compassionate service of the truth, in service of unconditioned reality and sanity for the benefit of all. As Bendell and others take pains to remind us, this mode of being is not driven by a starry-eyed idealism that tries to ignore despair and fear or naively rides high on a dogmatic certainty that the golden age is just around the corner. As he says, you do it because it’s right, regardless of the outcome.

In a further clarification of the open mode of being, Loy says, “Realizing our interdependence and mutual responsibility for each other implies something more than just an insight or an intellectual awareness. Trying to live this interdependence is love.”4.

A central difference between the two opposed modes is that one involves an isolating, fear-based closing inward and the other implies an open and more trust-based sharing of ideas and in the current predicament maybe especially of skills and resources. While the system in which so many of us are embedded in more privileged lifestyles presses hard on us to continue in the individualistic consumer mode, it seems that multiple ways of working in concert will be the only functional way forward. If, as so many foresee, some significant degree or version of system collapse is bearing down on us, this kind of mutually supportive existence will increasingly be understood as essential for collective survival. Even if the visionaries are wrong, or at least a few decades ahead of themselves, I’ve got to think that some form of degrowth and greatly reduced consumption will be increasingly recognized as the only sane and sustainable way to proceed together.

As I noted at the top, I’m well aware that this is difficult material to come to terms with. There’s an old saying – “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” Especially for those of us who are more or less materially comfortable, it’s really fucking hard to face the prospect that the party is all but over and tough times are staring down at us. Many, including perhaps you reading this, simply don’t want to hear it. People speaking openly about the possibility of impending system collapse and the need for “deep adaptation” can be seen as doomsayers and even censored and canceled in media discourse.

Professor Bendell has co-opted the accusation of doomsayer, or doomer, and reframed it to describe those identifying as doomsters, implying an acceptance of the inevitability of the breakdown of the existing dysfunctional planetary economic structure, but accompanied by a clear and compassionate vision for functional and spiritually-aligned alternative ways of thinking and living.

In Breaking Together, Bendell lists 15 “Doomster Characteristics.”5. You’ll note that there’s a distinct element of the spiritual in this list. As he has stated he would like a wide readership and positive response to the book (and he offers a free download of the book at ), I’m guessing Professor Bendell won’t object to me listing them here. As follows:

  1. FREEDOM – move away from shoulds to the open doors of coulds.
  2. URGENCY – do not postpone what’s in your heart
  3. PARAMETERS – engage society with a different time horizon, whether with career, savings, or family.
  4. PRESENSCE – focus on the here and now, with an openness to experiencing life anew.
  5. GRATITUDE – be thankful for the positive aspects of modern societies that will now disappear as well as the natural world before it changes.
  6. GROUNDING – don’t become occupied by catastrophic information in ways that disrupt your focus.
  7. COMMUNITY – contribute to local capabilities and defend them from destructive pressures.
  8. RELEASE – let go of the pain of the story of need to save everything before it’s too late.
  9. TRANSCENDENCE – experience a heightened connection to the Oneness of everything.
  10. EMPATHY – accept the many emotionally difficult responses that occur to the realisation or experience of societal collapse.
  11. SOLIDARITY – use privilege in a radical way to help people to live more freely and caringly.
  12. AMENDS – prepare to be able to leave this existence feeling that one has done one’s best for others and wider life.
  13. EXIT – consider how you wish to live and die as situations degrade, and prepare for that.
  14. GENTLENESS – drop desires for getting everything right or being the best you can be.
  15. ENJOYMENT – have fun with the time you have left as a way of honouring being alive at this time.

As I see it, the only acceptable reason to draw attention to this predicament is the hope that more and more of us (doubting self included) will gird our loins to face these hard facts and begin to accept—including our feelings of grief and anxiety—the changes that come our way. The challenge and the hope is that, as Buddhist teachings say, each of us will be able to “hold our seats” and find some trust in our ability to navigate radical change, in the better angels of each other, and in the flow of existence altogether.

As wisdom teachers would say, the qualities and behaviours most likely to help us in difficult times are the same qualities that are likely to predominate in a mature planetary civilization: inner peace; compassionate action; and even joy in the boundless magnificence of divine creation altogether—at play in the fields of the Lord as an old saying goes. Yes, considering the probabilities I’ve foisted upon you in this essay, joy in the face of societal breakdown and all its attendant consequences might strike you as impossible. But if there’s any chance of a planetary reconfiguration and revitalization, no matter how much of a long shot or how long the “turning” will take, we need visions to help us keep our chins up and focus on what we can do. As Yogi Berra, baseball’s maestro of accidentally appropriate malapropisms put it, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

This time of radical change has been envisioned for a long time in some quarters and intuited by a great many of our contemporaries. Indigenous visionaries have used terms like “the turning of the soil” that is understood as necessary and inevitable for there to be any hope of the dawning of the promise of what Duane Elgin (Choosing Earth) calls “a mature planetary civilization” and what Christopher M. Bache (LSD and the Mind of the Universe) has seen as “the birth of the future human.”*

*Note: Both Chris and Duane have chapters on this “turning” in How Psychedelics Can Help Save the World: Visionary and Indigenous Voices Speak Out.

If you think that the promise touched on in the paragraph above is naive, wish-fulfilling fantasy, know that people like Duane Elgin, Chris Bache and many others are fully cognizant of the likelihood that the necessary emptying and dissolution of the current dysfunctional planetary enterprise is ushering in an extremely challenging period that may last centuries or longer. Again, maybe the best rationale we can proceed by is the principle of doing what our wisest, clearest selves know to be right, without any guarantees of success, especially in the near term.

Before closing, I want to mention something else on this subject. Do you ever have the sense that an idea has come to your attention, seemingly out of the blue—and often more than once—for a reason? It’s as though some inner voice, or spirit guide, is trying to tell you something important you might not have considered. I’ve had that intuitive sense recently.

One way this idea has shown up comes courtesy of the brilliant cultural visionary Jamie Wheal. During a recent online course on the subject addressed in this piece, Jamie pointed out that among all the probabilities, there is always an element of the unknown, perhaps comprising 10% of the range of likely outcomes. Others have also mentioned this potential surprise factor. Although the signs are pointing firmly in one direction for humanity at this point, we really don’t know what might come through “the crack in everything” as Leonard Cohen put it.


In the words of Nobel Prize-winning author André Gide (1869-1951), “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.6.

  1. Loy, The Great Awakening, 113
  2. Becker, Escape from Evil, 80-81
  3. Loy, 113-114
  4. Loy, 108
  5. Bendell, Breaking Together, 426
  6. Gide, from

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