Social transformation and upheaval are as normal as the changing of seasons or the rising and setting of the sun, but these days it seems like we’re living in particularly tumultuous times. Maybe people always feel this way, but I don’t think so. The route of history tends to come to a crossroads now and again; moments when our civilization is forced to choose a path. And—my friends and readers—our collective ride has rolled up to the intersection.
Six decades ago—at the onset of that weird and colorful crossroads that was the 1960s—one writer offered a map: Aldous Huxley. While you are most likely familiar with his works Brave New World and Doors of Perception, his lesser-known final novel Islandprovides a social prescription that is distinctly relevant to our current predicament.
In Island, Huxley imagines an isolated nation
in the South Pacific called Pala that seems to have achieved some semblance of
utopia. Unfortunately for the Palanese, this little paradise sits atop a
massive oil reserve. When journalist Will Farnaby shipwrecks on the island
(with the hidden intention of brokering a deal to sell the oil to a nearby
military dictatorship), his skepticism at the culture’s harmonious existence is
eroded as he becomes increasingly enlightened to their benefits of their lifestyle.
society is organized around a radical sense of community in which the
individual is strengthened by collective efforts of the whole.
For example, rather than being raised solely by their biological parents, children are reared in Mutual Adoption Clubs (MACs) in which they live with and are taught by multiple sets of parents. This allows them to garner influence from many sources, and to eliminate the likelihood of inheriting psychological pathologies that are so often passed from generation to generation in traditional family units. You can forget about maladaptation being handed down from father to son if the boy is raised by a dozen dads.
This allows them to garner influence from many sources, and to eliminate the likelihood of inheriting psychological pathologies that are so often passed from generation to generation…
Or take their approach to work. Citizens are encouraged to change careers often, allowing them to gain a range of experiences, hold a variety of roles in the community, and actualize their different interests. And everyone partakes in some form of physical labor, not only to ensure that everyone has a hand in the dirty-work of society-building, but to bolster their health and fitness.
To put it another way, the Palanese believe that a healthy community breeds healthy individuals.
Social and Political Intelligence
At the same time, the residents of this island also assert that wise, free-thinking individuals help to drive a sustainable community. They have eliminated, for example, the shackles and waste of consumerism in favor of emphasizing needs over wants.
“What are boys and girls for in America? Answer: for mass consumption. And the corollaries of mass consumption are mass communications, mass advertising, mass opiates in the form of television…”
In the eyes of the Palanese, people who crave things become slaves to those who do the
selling. The easiest way to brainwash someone is by giving them an
overabundance of stuff to lust after and buy.
Speaking of brainwashing, the Palanese society is careful to spot what they call “the propagandist’s predestined victims”—the twenty-percent of people who have a tendency to be conned into joining fanatical causes that are threatening to liberty. These individuals are taught to recognize and disregard “spellbinders” who quest for dictatorship.
In other words, consumerism is the snare of dangerous con-men, and minimalism and critical thinking are the cure.
The Yoga of Sex
Ever since Freud lit his first cigar, it’s been pretty widely accepted that much evil has been caused by sexual hang-ups both societal and individual. The Palanese have a solution: “the yoga of sex.”
This concept encompasses three primary
concerns: birth control, sexual liberation, and the full satisfaction of both partners.
Young people are taught about the finer points of sex at an early age, its discussion isn’t considered taboo, and couples have decidedly libertine views of sex…
The first issue is addressed via education and the distribution of contraceptives. The second is achieved through the demystification of sex. Young people are taught about the finer points of sex at an early age, its discussion isn’t considered taboo, and couples have decidedly libertine views of sex outside the confines of their relationships. And when it comes to ensuring the satisfaction of everyone involved, the younger Palanese receive, ahem, hands-on education from older, more experienced teachers who guide them in the ways of Tantra. In other words, they all learn how to get down like Sting. (If you don’t get the reference, Google it).
All of this translates into more sustainable birth rates and citizens who are better-adjusted psychologically and sexually fulfilled, the benefits of which are far-reaching.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that the person
who was largely responsible for introducing the world to psychedelics via the Doors of Perception would recommend
them for the good of society.
In Huxley’s imagined utopia, young people are welcomed into maturity through a ceremony in which they ingest moksha medicine—a psychedelic that is similar to psilocybin mushrooms. This introduces them to what the protagonist describes as a “knowledgless understanding” in which they experience a loss of ego and greater awareness of their oneness with the universe. They leave this ritual as richer, more actualized individuals.
This introduces them to what the protagonist describes as a “knowledgless understanding” in which they experience a loss of ego and greater awareness of their oneness with the universe.
As it turns out, this isn’t some druggy fever dream. Research has shown that psychedelics have vast potential to help treat conditions like PTSD, anxiety, depression, chronic headaches, and more. They’ve been used in end-of-life therapy for patients dying of terminal illness as well as their family members, and have shown great success at reducing fear of death and instilling all involved with a sense of closure. What’s more, studies and anecdotal evidence have indicated that small and large doses can support creativity and productivity.
As a result, there has been a major resurgence of research into the benefits of psychedelics for the first time since the 1960s, as is perhaps best documented in Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. And now we’re seeing a little bit of Pala leaking out into the real world—Denver has just voted to decriminalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms, and many other regions are looking to do the same thing.
A Transformative Future
the Palanese society is still young and in flux, still working to instill idealistic
concepts like those above with the hopes of creating a lasting harmony for
individuals and the community alike. But the threat of backsliding always
“The people who’ve been conditioned to swindling and bullying and bitterness will all be dead in a few years. Dead, and replaced by men and women brought up in the new way. It happened with us; it can happen with you.”
“It can happen,” he [Farnaby] agreed. “But in the context of H-bombs and nationalism and fifty million more people every single year, it almost certainly won’t.”
“You can’t tell till you try.”
Similarly, our current context might make it seem impossible to envision a world free of the problems that afflict it today. But with Island, Huxley is proposing a thought-experiment in which we are urged to consider alternatives. Things don’t have to be this way, but if we cling to our cynicism, to the conviction that we’re sold every day that change is too hard, that the obstacles are too substantial, then we’ll never find our way out of the madness.
…with Island, Huxley is proposing a thought-experiment in which we are urged to consider alternatives.
The book suggests that change
is in the little things—in looking at family in a different way, in education,
in orgasms, in a mushroom even—and that all those little things can add up to a
new way of being.