MEMBERS ONLY: What Psychedelics Taught Me About Humanity’s Terrifying Ecological Crisis

by Ben Cohen

With the news about Donald Trump pulling American out of the Paris Climate Agreement, it would be easy to lose faith in humanity’s ability to combat global warming. Without America — the world’s biggest historic emitter of greenhouse gasses — the rest of the planet will have a very hard time curbing CO2 levels in the atmosphere

In times like this, maintaining a healthy perspective on what is going on is essential if we want to effectively work together to make a difference and transform the way we live. We are experiencing an extreme moment in human history that is greatly destabilizing and emotionally traumatizing for many, many people and it is easy to get incredibly depressed about it all. While Donald Trump may appear to be the biggest impediment to the change we so desperately need, I have an alternate take that might sound a little bizarre to a westerner, but nevertheless might be useful to consider as at least a metaphor for what is happening on the planet right now. 

I have spent the last three years intensively researching traditional Amazonian Shamanism, resulting in my own use of the potent psychedelic brew Ayahuasca, and another Andean cactus based psychedelic, Huachuma (or San Pedro as it is commonly known). To Western society, these substances are considered drugs and are illegal. But in Amazonian culture (and others around the world), plant based psychedelics are considered medicines used specifically to heal physical illnesses and psycho-spiritual ailments. I’ve written about this before on the Banter, but have done so sparingly given the difficulty in translating a totally different world view to our readers. The Amazonian view of the world is deeply entrenched in ecology, and their understanding of spirituality is directly connected to the experiences they have using substances like Ayahuasca — a vine they say is the “mother of all plants” and an incredibly powerful intelligence. My own experiences indicate strongly to me that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are not crazy, and their claims that nature is sentient and aware of us is not as far fetched as you might think. There is an emerging science on the sentience of nature that is gaining increasing credibility in the mainstream, and fungi and plants are now known to be able to perform a truly astonishing array of seemingly intelligent behaviors in response to their ever changing environments. This is obviously worth exploring more from a scientific point of view, but there are plant medicines available to us that allow anyone to test the Amazonian world view for themselves. 

There is no doubt that the experience of taking these substances radically changes the way people who take it experience nature, and whether or not Ayahuasca is an independently intelligent ‘being’, the effect of taking it is almost always the same. Hundreds of thousands of people report experiencing nature as being alive and aware of us, and perhaps most importantly report experiencing themselves as being inextricably linked to it, or a part of nature, rather than apart from nature. The feeling is a powerful one, and it has the power to transforms the way we treat the world around us. Someone who has had a serious Ayahuasca experience is, for example, unlikely to want to go and work for Exxon upon their return to Western society. The more the medicine spreads around the world, the bigger the impact it has on the collective psyche of humanity, and the greater chance there is of changing our species relationship with the planet. Ayahuasca isn’t the only answer to our ecological crisis, but it could well be part of it. 

One of the things I’ve been hearing a lot lately in the rapidly growing Ayahuasca community is a rather interesting metaphor regarding what is happening to humanity, and why we are entering into a stage of severe crisis — and it is that of the butterfly metamorphosis. Before a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, it starts to eat an astonishing amount of food, several times its own bodyweight, that creates an internal crisis. Here’s how Scientific American describes the rather terrifying process: 

First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar’s life; in other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon. Some caterpillars walk around with tiny rudimentary wings tucked inside their bodies, though you would never know it by looking at them.
Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth. The imaginal disc for a fruit fly’s wing, for example, might begin with only 50 cells and increase to more than 50,000 cells by the end of metamorphosis. Depending on the species, certain caterpillar muscles and sections of the nervous system are largely preserved in the adult butterfly. One study even suggests that moths remember what they learned in later stages of their lives as caterpillars.

To the Ayahuasceros, this is exactly what is happening to humanity. We are in the process of eating several times more food than the planet can sustain, creating a very severe ecological crisis. The ‘imaginal discs’ are those working diligently to create a different future for humanity, who were once isolated, but are now being connected in increasingly creative ways. In essence, we are in the process of a painful but necessary step in our evolution as a species that appears to be headed to disaster, but is actually leading us towards a much, much brighter future in harmony with the planet. 

My own experiences with the plant medicines would suggest that this metaphor is an incredibly useful one, and may well reflect what is happening. It is of course impossible to accurately describe what is happening to us on an evolutionary scale while actually going through it, but my instincts tell me it is correct. What will emerge after this planetary crisis has passed is anyone’s guess, but the humans who survive won’t be digging up coal and burning fossil fuels to power their oversized SUVs. As the philosopher Terence McKenna once stated, the process is not happening by choice — it is an evolutionary transformation happening whether we like it or not: 

The people who run the planet, the World Bank, the IMF, you name it, they know that history is ending. They know by the reports which cross their desks: the disappearance of the ozone hole, the toxification of the ocean, the clearing of the rain forests. What this means is that the womb of the planet has reached its finite limits, and that the human species has now, without choice, begun the decent down the birth canal of collective transformation toward something right around the corner and nearly completely unimaginable.

If this is the case, then I suspect that worrying about the planet is almost completely futile. Several experiences I’ve had with plant medicines have suggested to me that the earth is completely fine — it is going about its business as usual, and is simply waiting for us to go through this awful crisis and ‘wake up’. When that will be is anyone’s guess, but as many people in the Ayahuasca community say, it is down to the individual to go through their own process of coming in to harmony with the planet — a planet that has survived quite well without us incidentally, and will be here long after we are gone. 

While Donald Trump may well be a destructive agent laying waste to the planet’s resources, he may well be a catalyst for something much, much greater. And that is the mass awakening of humanity, which he and others like him could not possibly have imagined.