Looking to the Future
Fundamental changes in our society often take place within only few years. Digitalisation and climate change seem to be examples for a change of this sort. Such a global transformation brings opportunities and risks simultaneously.
At first glance, the thousands of years old spiritual healing method of shamanism has not much to do with recent changes. However, shamanism can re-establish our lost connection with life and ourselves which can help us to overcome future challenges.
Since the 1970s, we have started integrating computers and robots in our work and private environment to automate labour and production processes. The basic idea has always been to generate cost-efficiency for production and commerce as well as to create jobs, economic growth and new markets. Innovation is still a key driver of change. Until 2010, there was a steady development which seemed to be calculable and manageable. Nowadays digital structures and processes are pervading our lives to a previously unimaginable extent, with consequences that are difficult to predict.
So far, climate change has been a theoretical and abstract matter, but now we can see the first tangible consequences for our everyday lives - like regular droughts, floods, storms, crop failures, etc. Nevertheless, we still think and act largely in the old structures of the industrial revolution. We refuse to acknowledge that, with the exception of sunlight, we live on a planet with limited resources. At the same time, there is little time left to curb the consequences of climate change and to create a sustainable economy. According to the scientific magazine “New Scientist” we only have 12 years left (1). So we need new ideas quickly on how we want to deal with natural resources. Additionally to the technical solutions we will also have to work and implement social innovations.
Shamanism – a Spiritual Ecology
Shamanism emerged in societies which lived from and in nature, such as hunters and gatherers as well as semi sedentary societies that were engaged in agriculture and livestock farming. From a shamanic point of view everything possesses a soul - this includes animals, plants, stones and soil. In the 1970s, the scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis established the Gaia-hypothesis (2), after which our planet is a self-regulating system (3). They followed the spirit of the time and created the so called “New Age Movement” with which they encouraged the urge for a planetary awareness. However, they had to face aggressive counteraction from mainstream scientists that can be compared to a modern ‘shitstorm’. Whenever there was a simple discussion about the fact that the earth is the only planet that we can live on and that we were created by it, those opinions, even scientific evidence, were always waved aside as emotional or religious. To survive as a species, nonetheless, we will need more of this emotion, more Fridays for Future and much more connection with our ecosystems. In the end we will need to handle our resources with gratitude and consideration.
When I start a discussion about these topics, most of the times I can observe two types of connected reactions: one latent approving and one rather sceptical reaction. This is not surprising, as we have lived in rising prosperity for around 150 years since the industrial revolution. Why should we give up a successful strategy just to listen to our feelings? The short answer is that our feelings can tell us exactly the right things. Science and the problems in our economy show us that we cannot go on like this. Problematic is the often reflexive classification into right or wrong, which only leads to polarisation instead of new ideas and ways.
There are other ways to handle the matter which do not include evaluating everything at first sight. Contemporary shamanic societies show how we can work around the – allegedly – widely differing opinions of the mainstream economy and how to bypass an animistic view of the world (4). Shamans are and always have been excellent in walking on the borders and developing their views beyond what is normally visible - through divinatory techniques. We are now facing some great challenges and that is why we need every creative idea which human kind can possibly yield. So why not fall back upon the ancient, transcultural and proven approaches (5), ideas and divinatory skills of shamanism, which have helped our ancestors to live and survive within nature.
As a phenomenon from the 1970s, which was already mentioned above, digitalisation is not a new concept. What is new, is the speed of modification, the complete penetration of our lives and the beginning conflict between humans and machines (programs, electronic devices, cars, robots, etc.) – boundaries blur continuously.
Since the first steps towards artificial intelligence through machine learning, we have seen that machines and software are increasingly able to learn independently and to acquire skills that were previously reserved for us humans. They can play GO on a higher level than us, they can recognize languages, pictures and faces, they start composing music and painting pictures and they understand our preferences and wishes better that our closest relatives. A world in which we will be completely assisted by intelligent machines is not far to seek.
However, it stays unclear whether we will ever experience fully autonomous and conscious artificial intelligence – even if this can be read repeatedly. Yuval Noah Harari shows several basic possibilities (6). First of all there is the possibility that consciousness is interconnected to biology, which means that it cannot be created outside of a biological organism. Second of all, we may be able to create intelligent machines with emotional recognition, but which are not conscious in our sense. Finally, according to the third option, we would have machines that could actually think and act intelligently and consciously. This would probably lead to the creation of a new species.
We could sit back and hope that things will go differently, as we have done with climate change so far, or we start to genuinely deal with our human consciousness – as Harari advises. At the moment, we do not have a tangible scientific theory about where and how human consciousness emerges and what is necessary for it. We cannot even scientifically prove or disprove whether there are other (non-human) forms of consciousness on earth. Candidates for it would be for example trees, ravens, whales and state-forming insects to name just a few. From a shamanic point of view, this question does not arise as we know from practical shamanic experience that animals, plants and stones can have different consciousness-presences, which they get from us. Ergo: If we do not understand ourselves and our life context in the first place, we cannot build highly intelligent machines without running the risk of losing control.
Call from the past
The Gaia hypothesis mentioned above may have pointed in the right direction: we have to treat the earth as one single ecosystem and realign our actions. Additionally, we should start to research human consciousness using all methods available. Shamans have always been connected to everything that is, and used/experienced divinatory techniques to expand their own consciousness or to coordinate the interactions between humans and other living beings. After 250 years of the industrial age, this sounds like a call from the past. We humans and the earth are still the same, only our task has become bigger and more urgent.
(1) Le Page, Michael (2018): Climate change is happening, but how fast? This is what we really know. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-200-climate-change-is-happening-but-how-fast-this-is-what-we-really-know/; 02.09.2019
(2) Lovelock, James E. (1972). „Gaia as seen through the atmosphere“. Atmospheric Environment. Vol. 6, Issue 8. 579–580; Lovelock, James E., Margulis, Lynn (1974): Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis. Tellus. Series A. Stockholm: International Meteorological Institute. Vol. 26, Issue1–2. 2–10.; Lovelock, James E. (1979): Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(3) A hypothesis we know - although in an even more holistic sense - also from shamanism (e.g. Urban, Roland, Huguelit, Laurent (2018): Schamanismus und Ökologie. Wartberg ob der Aist: FSSE).
(4) Oelschlägel, Anett C. (2013): Plurale Weltinterpretationen: Das Beispiel der Tyva Südsibiriens. Fürstenberg/Havel: Kulturstiftung Sibirien.
(5) Harner, Michael (1990): The Way of the Shaman. 3rd ed. New York: Harper One. S. xviii
(6) Harari, Yuval Noah (2019): 21 Lektionen für das 21. Jahrhundert. München: C.H. Beck.
Dipl-Biol. Kai Goerlich is futurologist and faculty member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Europe.