Charles Eisenstein: It's Time for a Better Narrative

Our actions are determined by our beliefs. And our beliefs are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

So what happens when the stories we tell ourselves are inaccurate?

The short answer is, we find ourselves engaging in actions that aren't aligned with our best interests.

Charles Eisenstein has made a profession out of studying the intersection of economics and philosophy. And he thinks that over the past several generations, enabled by an unprecedented subsidy of abundant cheap energy, our society has become so far decoupled from natural laws that it has adopted a paradigm of thinking (or "stories") dangerously irrelevant to the future we face.

As resource scarcity increasingly expresses the natural forces that applied to our grandparents' generation and those prior, we are still living under a mindset that assumes predictable, endless growth.

Think about it: Most people reading this and nearly all of our national leaders have come of age in one of the most, if not the most, extraordinary economic periods in history. The exploitation of petroleum fields ushered in a global prosperity never before dreamed of. Decoupling gold from the dollar has allowed those living in the US to increase debt much, much faster than GDP for the past forty years. This behavior is empirically unsustainable -- but to almost all of us, it feels "normal," because it's all we've known.

And it's coming to an end.

The power elite is very much trapped in their obsolete paradigms. Across the political spectrum, everyone’s solution is we have got to reignite economic growth.

So when housing starts rise, that's trumpeted as great news. No one really bothers to mention that we already have like double the housing capacity per capita that we did in the 1950’s. There is something like 19 million vacant units. As long as we are starting to build new houses then that is going to be employment and everything is going to be okay. They are trying to squeeze a little bit more growth out of the system. But as you mentioned, it comes at a higher and higher cost.

It's very much like an alcoholic. In the early days you can maintain the addiction quite easily. Maybe you will have to take a second mortgage out on your house, you will have to lie to your boss a little bit but you can kind of hold things together. Eventually, things fall apart. Eventually, it is your liver. And you can only get that next fix at greater and greater cost.

Now, to extend the metaphor to our system, we have gotten all of the easy oil. We have depleted all the easy resources and the ones that we can easily escape the consequences of. Up until now, or up until recently, if you are creating industrial pollution, radioactive waste, etc., etc. social turmoil, well you can move away from it. you can move to a gated community, you can escape it.

Well, today it is becoming impossible. The consequences are invading even the fortresses of the wealthy in various forms and if we want to keep growth going there is not that much more of nature that we can convert into product and not much more human relationship that we can convert into services. What we can convert comes at a much, much higher cost. You have to excavate the Alberta tar sands and devastate that Eco system. You have to clear cut the forests the fifth time or sixth time and they aren’t really recovering anymore, trees are dying everywhere and we just – the planet can’t take much more of that.

The other thing sometimes economists will say is we can grow the economy of services instead and we can actually have economic growth with less energy because of miniaturization and other technological innovations. So energy really isn’t a constraint and I think that to meet that objection you have to kind of extend the peak argument to include community as well and understand that a lot of the growth and services come at the expense of things people once did for each other and that technology -- just like in the material realm and the social realm -- technology has extended the reach of monetized services.

For example, people never used to pay for communication, now we pay for almost all of our communication. People never used to pay for entertainment but now we pay for almost all of our entertainment. Even when my father was a child he says that in his suburban neighborhood, his whole neighborhood, every Sunday, would get together with guitars and sing folk songs. To imagine that happening in my neighborhood today is ridiculous because we all buy all of our entertainment. There is almost nothing that we don’t pay for anymore.

What is happening is there is just not that much room for economic growth. We are never going to go back to the normal of the 50s and 60s when like there were years where there was like 7 or 8% GDP growth. No way. Now we are having trouble getting up to 2.5% and that is just not enough to allow lending. The banks would rather just sit on their money. Why would you lend it to build a widget factory when the market for widgets is flat.

The money is stagnating as excess reserves. No matter how much they create it is, as Keynes said, like loosening your belt in hopes you will get fat.

So, what to do about it? Change our guiding stories and, in many cases, look to historical models that have demonstrated success. And realize that 'wealth' will be increasingly defined not by the dollars in your bank account, but by social capital:

The only thing that you could invest in that can survive such a transition would be to invest in your community, to create a reservoir of gratitude out there -- to be someone who is valuable to other people, who has valuable resources, valuable skills which you share.

This interview makes a deep exploration of what we as a society value today, and how that perception may likely evolve in the years to come. It's heavy on philosophy, and touches on the spiritual, too. It's not our typical fare for these podcasts, but certainly a worthwhile perspective to consider.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Charles Eisenstein (runtime 55m:22s): 

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Charles Eisenstein is a teacher, speaker, and writer focusing on themes of civilization, consciousness, money, and human cultural evolution.

His writings on the web magazine Reality Sandwich have generated a vast online following; he speaks frequently at conferences and other events, and gives numerous interviews on radio and podcasts. Writing in Ode magazine’s “25 Intelligent Optimists” issue, David Korten (author of When Corporations Rule the World) called Eisenstein “one of the up-and-coming great minds of our time.”

Eisenstein graduated from Yale University in 1989 with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, and spent the next ten years as a Chinese-English translator. He currently lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and serves on the faculty of Goddard College.


Our series of podcast interviews with notable minds includes:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This is among the best CM podcasts that I’ve heard.

I turned it off when he said that warlords are going to take my Gold.  I don’t think he has ever seen a video of how fast you can unload 12G buckshot out the business end of a Benelli tactical shotgun.  I guess I will be a warlord… but I promise to be a really benevolent one, as long as your quest is only to beg a can of spam from me   : )  
I find myself getting fatigued with all this… may need a break and just pretend things are normal for a while…        

A  gem. Thank you both. A lot of food for thought. I will have to sleep on it and take notes.

I see it this way.
We are in the process of being born.

The planet is spawning and we are it. 

We have become alienated from the planet, and this is how it should be.

Dr Gerard K O’Neill has shown us how to leave. It is time to go. There is only one place for us to live and that is in the sky. This planet will always be special to us. It is our mother. But it is time to go.

This is going to be dificult. Birth is always difficult. It is also glorious. There is no going back to the womb.


It is important to realize the enormous power of the space-colonization technique. If we begin to use it soon enough, and if we employ it wisely, at least five of the most serious problems now facing the world can be solved without recourse to repression: bringing every human being up to a living standard now enjoyed only by the most fortunate; protecting the biosphere from damage caused by transportation and industrial pollution; finding high quality living space for a world population that is doubling every 35 years; finding clean, practical energy sources; preventing overload of Earth's heat balance.
—Gerard K. O'Neill, "The Colonization of Space"[25]

The money no longer represents Wealth.  Because of this, persons have begun to question the money.   Since money is the facilatator of economic transaction, persons are doubting the economing.  And that means persons are losing faith in the viability of America.
Interviewee: "The planet can’t take much more of that."  My God says it can!!!  Damn you!

a man be born when he is old. Can he enter a second time into his mothers womb and be born?" Nicodemas Arther, you made me reply.  Difficulties  are all births of some sort. Now I may be reborn but "I don’t nonuthin’'bout birthin no babies" Butterfly


liked some of this (notion of community building)
other parts too out there for me

I agree completely with Mr. Eisenstein.  I am not a hippie,  but it is this idea that underlies virtually all of the good things that come from humanity from time to time.

Doug Casey, the noted investor and gold-bug, recently spoke about this truth in practical relation to the markets (although it applies in all other areas of life):

[quote=Doug Casey] Let me say one more thing about the issue of selfishness - the virtue of selfishness - and the vice of altruism.  Ayn Rand might never forgive me for saying this, but if you take the two concepts - ethical self-interest and concern for others - to their logical conclusions, they actually are the same.  It’s in your selfish best interest to provide the maximum amount of value to the maximum number of people - that’s how Apple became the giant company it is.
Conversely, it is not altruistic to help other people. I want all the people around me to be strong and successful. It makes life better and easier for me if they’re all doing well. So it’s selfish, not altruistic, when I help them.
To weaken others, to degrade them by making them dependent upon generosity, as we discussed in our conversation on charity, is not doing those people any good. If you really care about others, the best thing you can do for them is to push for totally freeing all markets. That makes it both necessary and rewarding for them to learn valuable skills and to become creators of value, and not burdens on society. It’s a win-win all around.

  • "Conversations with Casey, Feb. 8. 2012." [/quote]


 Chris has now just given Bill Moyers a run for his money.  I feel like this was another segment to "The Power of Myth" series on PBS, which blew my mind while just out of college searching for?..the meaning of life??  not really sure what I was searching for then!.  These two are circling in very close to some compelling "mystery", as a Catholic Mystic might say.
The late Joseph Campbell, in those interviews with Bill Moyer in the mid 80’s, described those all to common events where a stranger would put their lives at risk to help someone…ie a cop holding the hand of a jumper on some roadside cliff in Hawaii and slipping himself off the cliff, NOT letting go of the jumpers hand, trying to save this dude.  When asked why he could not let go, a guy with wife and kids…he would just say. " It came from a deeper place"…maybe that he saw himself in this person.  We are all tied together in mysterious ways.  And during this time of OIL and GROWTH, we have grown danerously far appart from ourselves.  I am the first to admit that I’m one of them.  I don’t know many of my neighbors.

Again, Fantastic Podcast Chris.  Food for thought galore!

Thank You!

Dover (in Portland, Or)



[quote=]If you really care about others, the best thing you can do for them is to push for totally freeing all markets. That makes it both necessary and rewarding for them to learn valuable skills and to become creators of value, and not burdens on society. It’s a win-win all around.
This Austrian sound byte sounds great until one understands that value is not created, but actually taken and transformed, from the natural world (the laws of physics and ecological energetics clearly stipulate this). Therefore, anything that diminishes the natural world’s ability to provide value by extension diminishes the amount of value available to all of us. Since free markets internalize profits and externalize costs (regardless of whatever monetary system they may find themselves operating in), they therefore diminish ecological productivity and do not optimize overall value.
As the saying goes, "You can give a man a fish, and he will have dinner. You can teach a man to fish and he will be able to feed himself for a lifetime", or something to that effect. Well where do the fish come from? A hook? This old proverb was popularized when there were still ample fish in the world.

I really liked one of the last things discussed in the interview, about how if you prevent a pipeline from being built you are actually speeding up the collapse. This really hits home because up here in Canada we have an ideologically driven dictator for a prime minister who is determined to send all of Canada’s remaining petroleum resources to China as quickly as possible in return for worthless pieces of paper (I’d rather use them to help out our friends to the south who will soon be in deep trouble), and in the process likely diminishing the productive capacity of the BC coastline and rivers from inevitable oil spills.
This pipeline epitomizes the situation we are now stuck in, why it is so difficult to transition to a sustainable economy. The existing system is designed to suck wealth from the natural world, until there is no wealth left to suck. If it can’t do this then it collapses. But Canada still has enough resources remaining that it could continue to do this for quite a while before we’d run out.
Voluntarily ending the current cancerous system before it runs out of resources would imply some sort of a crash. Since people always tend to push unpleasant events as far into the future as possible (and no sane politician would challenge that), the danger is that our incentives are to continue propping up the existing system until it crashes on its own accord, after which we will have no resources left with which to build a new system!
Fundamentally, this is just the manifestation of the same pattern of growth / collapse that ALL biological systems go through when provided with ample new resources, coupled with a lack of predation or other suppressive factors. Despite all our wonderful technology and artwork and complex social systems, our current society is collectively no more intelligent than bacteria in a petri dish.
One silver lining offering some hope is that the global monetary system will collapse long before Canada has exhausted its resources (hopefully we won’t have contractually signed them all over to China before then), because then we may retain something with which to rebuild a new system.

to my brethren… I went against advice that I have proffered here elsewhere myself… I shut down on Charles’ messages because I don’t agree with one of his own beliefs… i.e. the future utility of Gold.  Too much work and stress accrued at the end of Jim’s workweek had made him a dull boy.  
I listened to the whole podcast this time… and there are many nuggets.  First off, it is so true that the separation of the spiritual and the material is artifice in the modern narrative we have adopted… if there is one singular message that quantum mechanics teaches us, it is of the convertibility of energy into matter, and vice versa.  There are threads that bind us in ways we don’t understand… if the thought of a friend ever popped into you head, followed by a phone call from them, I don’t think this is always coincidence… I think rather it is a peek into this deeper level of connectedness.  If you want a very approachable way to explore these ideas, you might try reading, "The God Theory" by astrophysicist Bernhard Haisch;   

One idea that was discussed that I have never heard before was the idea of, if I may use my own words, peak services, and the implications of this both to future economic growth (or lack thereof), and to how the growth of services has actually been one of the drivers toward the moment of "peak separation", the flip side of the "community minima"  we find ourselves at now.  I recall as a kid in Livonia, MI, probably circa 1970-ish, that on a summer weekend night one of the neighbors would set up a movie screen on their driveway, some folding chairs, and would have a movie night for anyone who cared to come.  Anyway… ideas like gifting as a means to create community… and not just co-consuming, but co-creating as well, are important ones to grasp hold of.  

I will say that I inadvertently rejected some of the latter vestiges of the "wise advice" aspect of the services economy by making the decision at least 10 years ago to become my own financial advisor - without knowing it at the time, doing so opened the portal for me to the world of post-Keynesian thinking … and this podcast was a very broad and helpful discussion of post-Keynesian positivism.       


. . . before I saw your new post, Jim, which I haven’t read yet.

Hi Jim,

I agree that the idea that a warlord would want to go around taking everybody’s valuables from their houses is a bit cartoonish.  Gangs of opportunistic thieves, maybe.  Warlords, no.  I think its very unlikely that society breaks down completely during our own lifetimes, but let’s assume it does.  Who are the community’s lords?   Read this quote from Richard Heinberg:

[Quote=Richard Heinberg] If you can figure out how to grow food sustainably, starting now, you are guaranteed to become a Very Popular Person. In fact, your biggest problem could be TOO MUCH popularity! Your whole neighborhood might want to start hanging out with you every day to share meals. Some neighbors might even want to visit you (or your garden) in the middle of the night. Cozy—maybe too cozy!  But if you plan ahead for all of this popularity, you could find ways to put all your new friends to work weeding, planting, and harvesting.  You could turn this into a system—a feudal system, to put a name to it—with you as the, um, facilitator!

-Museletter #219, August 2010 [/quote] I think Heinberg is right that these are the sorts of people who historically became "lords."  They don’t do it by stealing gold from everybody in sight.  They draw their communities around them, making other people dependent upon them in a mutual relationship. The lord takes a slice off the very top.  Those who choose to isolate themselves and not participate in this increasingly vibrant community will soon learn the meaning of "dirt poor."  Why rob a community when you can own it?  I don’t need to steal your gold.
The lord will be too busy making money hand over fist to worry about theft.  Lords take the net economic output of a community or region.  At heart they are businessmen and community organizers. After all, money (and gold) does not have an absolute value.  It is simply a claim on the goods and services available in an economy at a given time . . . the economy that the local lord controls.
A warlord directly benefits by all economic activity in the community, regardless of who is selling or buying.  If I am the lord then I own the local economy -  so spend your gold.  Or hide it to spend later!  You have my blessing either way, because it benefits me either way.  You can even keep your shotgun.  In fact, I want you to have it.  As for the types of thieves who will come to your house in the middle of the night with masks on?  A good warlord will eliminate those sorts of people within a few years.  Warlords are not in the business of seizing personal property.  They will seek to control productive assets (water sources, land, large resource bodies). 

Why rob the community, when you can own it?  Unless you have a real Fort Knox buried underneath your house, what do I care?  That’s how a successful warlord will operate.

~                     ~                     ~                     ~
Of course, if I am the warlord and you were getting on my nerves, I could take care you you easily enough.  Maybe I’d just tell my community that you are suspected of a crime (maybe robbing the community in some way).  You’ll have to be brought before our court, fair and square.
The local officers who come to your house.  You going to shoot them?  Innocent people who are just doing their job?  Innocent men with homes and families?  If you do, even the most degraded society will call out the militia, who will fire a few artillery rounds into your house and call it a day (if that’s even necessary).  Yes, if you’re stupid enough to open fire on innocent members of my community, I’ll let the local justice system take care of you.  My hands are clean.
If you’re really getting on my nerves?  Well, I think the only way that you could do that would be to try and compete directly with me.  In that case I’ll just have somebody shoot you in the back one day when you’re walking down the road.  I’ll enjoy hearing about how the man fell to the ground face-first with his "tactical" shotgun in his hand.  Or maybe I’ll leave you alone and kill your grandchildren first.  Warlords are ruthless, dangerous people.
Back to the Richard Heinberg quote, above:  communities of interdependence are the best, and the only, consistent protection over long periods of time.  Throughout history, we never see either warlords (or groups indivdualistic hold-outs) who get by reliably with nothing but fortresses and guns, without getting along with their communities.

So this leads, in a rather roundabout way, to me agreeing with Mr. Eisenstein (but for different reasons).  Back to the Richard Heinberg quote above, to the individual and to the warlord alike, community is their most valuable asset.

 I find it fascinating that Eisenstein can do all that talking and thinking about "spiritual" meanings without any reference whatsoever to ANY ancient religious perspectives.  At least I would expect him to dismiss them as meaningless or divisive.  Of course, if you have any in depth knowledge of one or more of the ancient religious traditions, then you realize Eisenstein has only "discovered" truths that people of faith have been thinking and talking about for 2,000 - 3,000 years, or more.  And not only is he talking about ancient truths, he’s leaving out the absolute core beliefs/concepts of those traditions which are the indispensable foundations for the conclusions he is espousing.  Fascinating.
I wonder who’s world this is?  Mine?  Ours?  Or someone else’s?  Only AFTER you’ve come to a conclusion about that can you possibly answer who decides what is right and what is wrong, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy.

I wonder if anyone else before us ever took up this subject, "What is love?"  I wonder if people ever struggled with the questions, "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?"  

Well, if we’re the first ones to tackle these issues we’ve got a lot of new, ground-breaking work to do.  And a 10,000 volume library to publish.

For your thoughtful reply…   Indeed I have way more seeds stored than I could every plant on the cleared (now lawn) part of my 2 acre lot.  My intention all along has been to share them with neighbors when the time comes so that they can improve their resilience, and hopefully share some of the proceeds back with me.  I will be more Johnny Appleseed than fuedal war lord.  

Thanks for the reply, Jim.  I love the image of the Johnny Appleseed!  I also think there is much wisdom in your post above.
Mark, I should narrow my comment above.  You’re right that Doug Casey is talking about a net growth economy, which may not be possible in the future.  But I liked the quote because it makes a point that I agree with: at some level there may not be much difference between selfishness and altruism. 

For example, if being altruistic was a behavior not in the individual’s self-interest, we as a species wouldn’t do it.  Whether you want to argue spiritual or economic self-interest, the point holds.  If altrusim is a good thing, and good for you, then it is in some sense a truly selfish activity.  Avarice, destruction, and separation would be among the least "selfish" activities.

There is one advantage to be gained from having an interconnected society that I never hear mentioned, and that is that it will have a dramatic effect on the crime rate. Today, we mostly live in our own little bubble. The relationship with our neighbours is mainly around status, such as the size of our car, house etc. or just how exotic our holidays are. There is no real society from which we can be ostracised, so when someone commits a crime the only punishment is that handed down by the courts (assuming they get caught, of course!). <o:p></o:p>
However, if the society is cohesive, such as the entertainment being in the form of the guitar sessions mentioned in the talk, then if someone were ostracised from such gatherings, it would really hurt. Surely there is not a lot worse than seeing a group of people enjoying themselves and knowing that they specifically do not want you to join in with them. The prospect of such an eventuality would surely have a deterrence effect. It wouldn’t stop all crime, but I’ll bet it would stop a lot of it.<o:p></o:p>


I think it depends very much on where you are.  I think big cities and many suburbs could see crime rates skyrocket and remain elevated for years.  Suburbs strike me as particularly unstable places.  Even if they are located near some kind of farmland, they will have to discover "community" from scratch.  Even the outlying rural areas in many places have little community to speak of, and will need to develop it slowly.
But there are many other places where you will be absolutely correct:  the crime rate will stay very low, and may even drop significantly.

Many Old New England towns (I use the example only because, as a New Englander, they are what I know.  I’m sure there are other examples) are true communities that have existed as independent government units for almost 400 years.  These towns - even today - are very tight-knit, inward looking communities whose streets and houses were mostly built before the age of gasoline.  Geographically they tend to be somewhat self-contained, and the sense of duty toward "Town" approaches a second-patriotism, and the common sense of duty toward fellow townspeople approaches the feeling one would have for aunts, uncles, and cousins.  These are communities that one often must be born into to be fully accepted.  "Inward-looking" can be a disadvantage, but places like this will pull together strongly.

What we could see is a nation of extremes.  Some places will have the critical mass already in place (combined with the appropriate architecture and local resource base - generally sited and built before the age of petroleum) and will tip toward complete (almost xenophobic) community.  Other places (San Fernando valley?) that don’t have the critical mass will tip in the other direction and may have to deal with chronic instability and high crime for decades.  Even when those places (like the Valley) finally do reach an equilibrium point, I’m not sure I’d want to see it.  It could involve the kind of local lords that we were talking about above.