It’s an exciting time to be a doomsayer. The environment is ravaged, the world economy has collapsed, and every passing day seems to spin us toward a great, dark inevitable. Of course, we’ve seen this movie before (many times, in fact)—and here we are, still around to act it out again. But it does explain the recent resurgence of some of the doomsaying classics, including a grim forecast that dates back to theancient Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica:the 2012 prediction.
The Mayans viewed time and history in terms of cycles, and according to their most expansive measuring stick, the Long Count calendar, the current cycle ends on December 21, 2012, with what is believed to be a particular alignment of the Earth, the sun, and the center of the Milky Way. (Many astronomers dispute this.) The Mayans didn’t elaborate except to say that the date would represent the end of one cycle and the beginning of another, which has resulted in theories about the date as a sort of fulcrum in the process of human evolution to others foreseeing all-out extinction.
It’s difficult to find a commentary on the 2012 phenomenon that doesn’t have some connection to Daniel Pinchbeck. The author of two books and numerous articles on the subject, Pinchbeck is an oft-quoted authority on all things 21st-century-radical, from free love and urban homesteading to the use of psychedelics (of which he is an outspoken advocate). But Pinchbeck’s relationship with the counterculture is more than just spiritual: His father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract expressionist painter; and his mother, Joyce Johnson, authored a memoir about the women of the Beat Generation titled Minor Characters.
Growing up in New York City, Pinchbeck wanted to become a poet or a novelist. After dropping out of university at Wesleyan in Connecticut, he moved back to Manhattan, where he began working as a writer and founded the literary journal Open City with Thomas Beller and Robert Bingham. For a while, everything was going according to plan. But it all began to unravel one day in late 1999 when Bingham was found dead of a heroin overdose. Something began to change in Pinchbeck. He quit Open City and began a long—and, he says, very hermetic—process of retreating from the life he once sought so desperately to live.
On a trip to Africa prior to Bingham’s death, Pinchbeck had taken iboga—a root bark with hallucinatory properties. After that, his interest in psychedelics deepened beyond the LSD and mushrooms he had taken recreationally in college. He began to travel the world, experimenting with trip-inducing substances like ayahuasca (what the Beats called yagé), and immersing himself in the ancient tribal cultures that surrounded them—an experience he chronicled in his first book, Breaking Open the Head—which led to his interest in 2012.
The popular view of the 2012 prediction—that the end of the world is nigh—has spawned a cult cottage industry and even a big-budget feature film directed by Roland Emmerich, 2012, which is due out later this year. (The film’s tagline: “How would the governments of our planet prepare six billion people for the end of the world? They wouldn’t.”) But it is another interpretation—that the date represents aninitiation of sorts for humanity which is directly linked to our mistreatment of the environment and the current economic implosion—that interests Pinchbeck, even if it does include some of the fire and brimstone.
Pinchbeck recently co-edited an anthology titled Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age, with Ken Jordan, composed of essays culled from their website, Reality Sandwich. He also authored another book on the subject, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, and is involved in an upcoming documentary on 2012 directed by João Amorim.
On a recent Monday, in the café of a Jivamukti yoga studio, the 42-year-old Pinchbeck calmly explained why life—at least as we know it—is about to end.
STEPHEN MOOALLEM: You come from a family that has strong roots in the postwar counterculture. How did you feel about that growing up?
DANIEL PINCHBECK: I grew up in a very artistic, cultured home, but without any kind of spirituality. My parents were secular materialists, so I saw art as having this alternate value. I always wanted to be a poet or a novelist, so I definitely associated with countercultural ideas. Allen Ginsberg was somebody I knew a bit when I was young—I really had a lot of respect for him.
MOOALLEM: So you were living in New York and you were getting published; you started a literary journal . . .
PINCHBECK: When it came time to make a living, I worked in magazines, but ultimately I hit this kind of spiritual crisis . . . It was in the late ’90s. I was like 31 or 32, and I wasn’t doing terribly, in financial terms. I had written a piece for Esquire about the decline of sperm counts due to things like estrogen-mimicking hormones in chemicals. After doing that story, I really wanted to write more about those kinds of subjects, but I found it almost impossible to get those kinds of messages out into the mainstream media. So I just began to feel that the things that were most important to talk about were blocked off. I even began to feel that contemporary literature and art were these amazing distraction mechanisms, that they didn’t really deal with any kind of spiritual dimension of the human existence or even the dangers we were facing as a species. Then I had a really good friend die of a heroin overdose . . . I got really depressed and felt increasingly alienated and just went on this inner search. I began to ask myself what would constitute proof that there wasn’t any other dimension to being, and that led me to remember my psychedelic experiences in college.
MOOALLEM: What was it like for you, having worked in the Manhattan media world and then sort of going off in this other direction?
PINCHBECK: In many respects it was brutally difficult. For a while, I felt very lonely. But then I began to find new playmates and friends who shared my interests. It was some kind of initiatory death-and-rebirth process in terms of my New York life and my priorities. I had gone to West Africa where I went through this tribal initiation, taking iboga . . . After that, there was no looking back because the experience was so incredibly fascinating, the insights and the visions and the shaman . . . This whole subject area had a magnetic attraction.
MOOALLEM: So how did you come around to this 2012 stuff? For the uninitiated—no pun intended—can you briefly explain what is supposed to happen?
PINCHBECK: The interest in 2012 has to do with the Classic Mayan civilizations that developed in the Yucatán. Before they mysteriously vanished, it seems they spent hundreds of years trying to establish a knowledge system around time and astronomical cycles, and they arrived at this December 21, 2012 date as the end of their Long Count calendar, which is a 5,125-year cycle. Now, different people have different ideas about what this date means. Some people believe it represents a kind of changeover, like an odometer clicking back to zero. But there’s also thought that the Mayans saw it as the end of a world cycle. What’s thought to be happening astronomically is an alignment on the winter solstice where the sun rises in the dark rift at the center of the Milky Way. Again, there are different ideas that people have about this—that maybe, on a galactic level, we’ll cross the plane of the equator and there will be forces that switch polarity, so maybe we’ll move from biological and physical life to a more psychic phase of evolution. There’s a Russian scientist, Alexey Dmitriev, who has been looking at changes in the solar system . . . The entire galaxy might be transitioning into a higher energy state—I mean, NASA talks about the heliosphere, the energy changing. The earth’s electromagnetic field is changing. So there seems to be a lot of physical evidence that might correlate to some kind of profound shift in the earthly planetary reality . . .
MOOALLEM: So what do you believe is going to happen on December 21, 2012?
PINCHBECK: I don’t pretend to know what’s going to happen. I mean, at the moment, our civilization is very unsustainable. We’re quickly reaching the end of our resources. There’s a species-extinction crisis. Climate change is accelerating. By many accounts, we’ve hit peak oil. We’ve had this huge financial meltdown. So I guess one way I’ve seen it is as a window of opportunity for us to change the direction of planetary civilization . . . If we don’t do that, then we may end up in a situation that’s kind of like The Road Warrior  . . . without the fun.
MOOALLEM: So do you envision a Noah’s Ark–type situation, where a select few make it through to the other side?
PINCHBECK: Well, again, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but my hope is that everybody comes through this experience safe and happy. It seems almost like an initiation process for the human species. If you look at shamanic initiation, it’s a kind of death-and-rebirth process where people can, in visionary states, go through the experiences of those things and then reintegrate when they’ve gotten over their fears because they recognize that there are other dimensions to being, that the soul goes further along even when the body is not here. So I think that the more people go through their own personal initiations, the less collective destruction may be unleashed on the planet.
MOOALLEM: And this is where the idea of taking psychedelics comes in . . .
PINCHBECK: Yeah, pretty much. Obviously, psychedelics were viewed as a big catalyst in the 1960s, but then they were not only suppressed legally but also repressed culturally, including through ridicule and dismissal. But I think that the psychedelic experience has a lot of value in the transformation process. If you take ayahuasca or mushrooms, it’s almost like you get this plant’s-eye view of reality. You see parts of our social system that we think are natural but are actually very artificial and could potentially be re-created in totally different ways.
MOOALLEM: But one of the lessons of the ’60s was that while psychedelics can open doors, it depends which doors they open, because what’s behind them all is not necessarily good . . .
PINCHBECK: Well, people explored psychedelics in the ’60s, but they had no really good map or model for how to use them, and so many people experienced things like ego loss and anxiety. But a lot has been learned since then.
I think that doing psychedelics shamanically is very different from just doing them randomly—it has an intention and a ceremony around it where you’re bringing people together to heal and to look for visionary knowledge.
MOOALLEM: In Toward 2012, you propose that in the current state of the world, “we might be looking at situations in which unappeased demons and aggrieved ancestor spirits are overtaking people, entering their psyches in states of detachment and disconnection,” and that we might need to employ “shamanic techniques such as soul retrieval and banishment” to deal with them. Are you saying that what’s going on right now with the environment or the economy might be a case of unattended-to spirits exacting a kind of revenge on humanity?
PINCHBECK: Well, shamanism is a kind of universal spiritual practice with indigenous cultures around the world, and one important element of it is taking care of spirits. You could use the words energies or archetypes, but I feel comfortable using the word spirits. A lot of indigenous cultures are deeply involved in working with ancestor spirits, elemental spirits, and demons. Many of these cultures feel that, if you don’t deal properly with ancestor spirits, then they come back and infest the living in the form of things like depression, addictive patterns, and neuroses. We in the modern West completely deny the existence of these spirits or other types of entities. And because we’ve denied them, we may have opened the gates for them to manipulate us in a lot of ways. A lot of our behavior, which is so unconscious, may in a way be due to energies or entities that we haven’t somehow put to rest properly.
MOOALLEM: I think one of the things about this 2012 moment that’s difficult for people to reconcile is that it’s so, well, soon.
PINCHBECK: First of all, I’m not a fundamentalist about the date. I think it might have more to do with us entering a period where we arrive at a different social paradigm or understanding of the nature of psychic reality. However, having said that, I have had a number of bizarre, almost synchronistic, experiences around that 2012 date, which indicates to me that it might be something more legitimate, like maybe we’ll be transitioning from a biological phase in evolution to a psychic phase of evolution, and maybe that date is like the hinge point where that suddenly takes off. There’s a lot of different material out there where people talk about mass congenial or spiritual awakenings happening as we approach that time—none of which I take seriously on its own, but, together, it’s almost like data that’s coming through the collective unconscious . . . I totally think we have a future on the planet. I just think that we have to get away from Western thinking, which is very much founded on dualisms.
MOOALLEM: So if there is a future, what does it look like? Is what we’re talking about here a sort of retreat from modernity? Does the future look like the past?
PINCHBECK: Now that question might involve taking seriously the ideas of someone like Buckminster Fuller, who was a design scientist. He created the geodesic dome and all of these other great patents, but he basically had this idea that you could look at all of society’s problems as design flaws, and that you could eliminate those flaws by redesigning society. Or it could involve looking at someone like Bernard Lietaer, the Belgian currency specialist who was one of the architects of the Euro. He suggested that you could have a global trading currency that would actually have a negative interest or a demurrage charge, so that the longer you held on to it, the more value it would lose. Then, instead of wanting to hoard it, you would want to share it and get it back into circulation, which might lead to more community-based values. And then the evolution of technology has had a profound effect on what it means to be a person. The fact that we’re all so constantly connected is a new thing, but it’s also an old thing, because tribes were like that, so now we’ve kind of created a new techno-tribalism on a global scale. And then I’m also interested in UFOs, extraterrestrials, and crop circles. If those things have legitimacy, then it means that there are levels of technology far beyond what we have now. You know, if UFOs are coming across the galaxy to get here, then they’re not burning coal to do it . . .
MOOALLEM: There’s this Roland Emmerich film, 2012, coming out. Were you involved with that?
PINCHBECK: Not really. But I’ve seen the preview.
MOOALLEM: How do you feel about those sorts of Armageddon-like interpretations?
PINCHBECK: I think they’re totally natural, and it reveals where most people are in their thinking. In a way, it’s almost easier to hallucinate Armageddon or apocalypse because then it’s like, “Oh, everybody is going to die anyway, so I don’t have to change anything.” Whereas if you can say goodbye to your old self and come out with a new self, then you can change everything. Maybe. I don’t know . . . Maybe I’m wrong.
MOOALLEM: I mean, this is a well-traveled road we’re standing on—one that people like Albert Hofmann and Timothy Leary and Terence Mc-Kenna all went down.
PINCHBECK: Well, individuals who are really inspirational are always what changes history. Gandhi had a bunch of good ideas, and he led a non‑violent revolution that transformed India. And so maybe what’s really radical now is not being ironic and not being distracted and not assuming that everything is a bunch of bullshit . . . So, you know, I have no idea whether it’s possible to be part of a process of global transformation, but I am amazed at how much I’ve been able to accomplish, and how much fun it’s getting to be.
MOOALLEM: Fun? What’s the most fun part for you?
PINCHBECK: I think it’s fun to change people’s ideas. It’s a process where at first there’s all this resistance and dismissiveness. But then, over time, I see people change and often their ideas tend to align more with mine. And then the parties get better . . . [laughs] But it’s always fun to be vindicated. You know, I suggested in 2006 [in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl] that we might experience an economic meltdown in 2008 . . .
MOOALLEM: Was that about mystical vision? Or correctly reading the credit markets?
PINCHBECK: It was a combination. I was inspired by some interpretations of the Mayan calendar and I was also studying a lot about peak oil and the financial system and the case against the global economy. We have a totally unsustainable system built on massive amounts of debt . . .
MOOALLEM: So what are you doing on December 21, 2012? Do you have any special plans?
PINCHBECK: I have no idea. I mean, I would love to be maybe having tea with extraterrestrials. Friendly ones.
Photo above: Daniel Pinchbeck in Los Angeles, March 2008. Photo: Herwig Maurer.
Stephen Mooallem is Interview’s executive editor.
Read more about 2012 at Daniel Pinchbeck's blog.