Transcendence is for Losers

Look Down: Your Soul is in the Soil.

Douglas Rushkoff
10 min readJan 31, 2024

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Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

I don’t think that’s what we really want. I believe the vast majority of us would prefer things simply get better. Even preppers and apocalypse watchers, deep down, would rather things get more cooperative, greener, and happier, so they don’t have to initiate their doomsday plans. The most aggressive tech bro billionaires still believe this is possible — that, (perhaps only under their stewardship), their technologically upgraded post-human society would be lush and green and wonderful. Their solar panels and nanotechnologies wouldn’t necessarily require us to depart the planet as pure consciousness. They’d just make it possible for us to do so, if necessary, before this whole place gets whacked by an asteroid or self-created disaster.

And even most of those worst-case escape fantasies are less virtual than they are organic. The fantasized Mars dome protects a verdant paradise — an orgy of sensual experiences, not a set of hard drives.

In spite of all this, I find so much of our conversation about our collective plight is steeped in highly abstracted ideas, from money and mechanisms to identity and ideology, when both the problems we face and best solutions before us are so much more grounded. Literally.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about the soil. The earth.

Soil isn’t dirt, it’s a living thing — the skin and flesh of the planet. A living system of mushrooms, mycelia, fungus, nitrogen-fixing organisms, roots and trees and water and worms and animals and pooping and yes, even us. And without getting too deep into the climate change science, living soil is what captures the carbon, maintains the earth’s temperatures, perspires just like a person to keep the surface cool, and evaporates water to support the clouds and rain. We haven’t actually paved over that much of the planet, but we’ve turned the soil into dirt — sand, even — by turning it over and farming it through industrial processes.

We did that for a reason. Drought and famines are real things. And they plagued human civilizations for millennia. In the late 1800s, a German scientist realized ammonia could be used to make chemical fertilizers that compensated for bad soil conditions. They were great, but they should have been used for crisis conditions. Instead, they became a way for industrial farm conglomerates to get more crops out of the soil in any one season — at the cost of the health of the topsoil over time. We used the stuff everywhere, destroyed the topsoil, made crops more vulnerable and less nutritious, and now depend on both fertilizers and genetically modified crops to get anything out of the dead dirt at all. Combine that with the separation of livestock from crops, which means no more manure, no more packing of the grass and hay into the ground returning nutrients to the soil, and worse. All that is substituted for with artificial inputs that cost money and support the industries that are profiting from all of this addiction and destruction.

But I digress.

What all this soil business got me thinking about is the lost science and wisdom of farming. It’s not rocket science but basic common sense, developed over a few thousand years of regenerative agriculture practice. Don’t plow the soil; make small precise slits for seeds without tearing open the surface; rotate and mix crops; maintain livestock in the same fields; let fields rest. Use chemicals only in emergencies, as a last resort to feed people.

And it occurred to me just how distant most of us are from farming, which may be one of the only truly worthwhile professions. Or let’s not even use that careerist word. Farming is one of the few worthwhile forms of work, along with childcare, teaching, healing, building shelter, moving water… The rest is not very real.

We’ve adopted a value set that sees this connection with the soil as a bad thing. I understand how we got there. Farming, for real, is hard. Especially when there’s not enough people who want to do it. As a society, we spent a whole lot of time and energy figuring out how to get other people (enslaved people, migrants) to do our farming for us. Meanwhile, most people aspired to move “up the ladder” to cleaner blue collar and white collar jobs in factories and offices. Yet the office work isn’t even real. It’s mostly about controlling the inputs and outputs, and obscuring the power relationships between those who create value and those who exploit it.

And I get it. People naturally want to get as far away from the “real” work as possible. So they get hemorrhoids and anxiety and ADD in their office jobs avoiding the labor of planting and harvesting or shepherding or bread baking. The irony here is that the wealthiest people I know — the millionaires and billionaires who eventually retire to their estates in the countryside — you know what they end up doing in their 70s and 80s? They start an organic garden or a vineyard, or they build beehives and harvest honey. And because they’re doing it for fun and meaning, they get a book on permaculture or biodynamics and they try to do it right. And they always end up with far more than they need, and end up selling it or giving it away.

Farming is the last truly mass job. We need to retrieve it instead of scaring people away from it. Agriculture college should be the highest goal, not the fallback. But most of us are still doing everything we can to distance ourselves from the ground rather than get our hands in the soil. And I understand: working the register at McDonalds is probably an easier day, and one in a cubicle at corporate headquarters is even easier.

But the devaluing of the real, the hands-on….the farmers, and their subjugation by a market that demands immediate output of monocrops instead of nutitritious and sustainable food, weather, and climate, is part of what’s behind today’s political divide as well. We do not treat real work as dignified. Dignity is no longer part of the equation. It has been replaced by wealth and power — abstractions you gain by leaving the ground behind. Those on the ground are, well, they’re considered the losers or — at best, if they’re still fighting — the deplorables.

In England, the existence of the Crown is really a nod to that need for dignity. Parliament accomplishes the efficient functions of government: roads and bridges and taxes and schools. The Crown is there to acknowledge people’s need for a sense of dignity — that their existence means something. Their participation in the welfare of their nation is recognized. There are leaders who care about honor, meaning, and the human soul. That’s why the king or queen is also head of the church.

Not that it’s a perfect solution by any means (royal bloodlines and “titles” are the very definition of entitlement), but the complete disregard for human dignity and, moreso, the dignity of manual labor, of childcare, of eldercare for that matter, and cleaning the poop off an ocatgenerian in a wheelchair, actually threatens our survival as a species. We are disconnected from the real. Even contemptuous of it and scornful toward those who are still there. And the further from it we run, the more scared we are to touch ground.

I began on this journey in around 2006, when I realized the mortgage market was going to crash. I was living in Brooklyn back then, and got mugged outside my apartment. I posted what happened online, and received two emails within the hour from people who were angry that I had included the exact location of the incident. They were worried that the negative publicity could impact their property values. They weren’t even trying to sell their apartments. Their mortgages were about to expire, and in order to acquire more equity their homes they needed to refinance at higher valuations. So the abstract market value of their homes mattered more than the quality of life on the ground.

We ignore conditions on the ground at our own and everyone else’s peril. Just last week, Columbia University attempted to hold a “Day of Dialogue and Reflection” about the war in Middle East, in order to establish ways for students to engage with each other. Rather than participating, several campus groups boycotted and protested the events because the university had not publicly condemned Israel for committing genocide. Other people, apparently outraged by those protests, doused protestors with some kind of skunk spray, which not only smells bad but makes people sick. None of this cosplay on Ivy League campuses is helping. It’s only further traumatizing and entrenching people who could be helping.

Actual Palestinian and Israeli activists on the ground in the Middle East, meanwhile, are begging Americans not to use words like “genocide” or “terrorists,”, and not to engage in such violent rhetoric or actions. People on the ground are instead attempting to forge solidarity in order to challenge their corrupt governments together. They believe that inflammatory language and demands for institutional statements hurts their cause, sets back the peace process, triggers more violence, and costs more lives.

Without a sense of dignity or a connection to the ground, even the most well-meaning and informed people look for substitutes in the form of slogans, abstractions, social constructions and ideologies

Without a sense of dignity or a connection to the ground, even the most well-meaning and informed people look for substitutes in the form of slogans, abstractions, social constructions and ideologies. The alienated logic of “intersection” replaces the lost experience and value of indigeneity. It’s like understanding one’s location in the world through longitude and latitude lines instead of the actual terrain.

These systems of thought and praxis have been great for solving certain kinds of problems throughout history. Maps and metrics gave us ways to conceptualize things beyond our senses. Bridges, tax codes, global logistics…. So I see why we want to rise above what seems like on-the-ground violence or confusion up into some safe Platonic places to suss it out. But I’m growing increasingly disenchanted or even intolerant of those efforts.

Many of my best blockchain and programming friends are busy working on what I’ve started to call an “everything equation.” They want to develop a blockchain or set of them that just solve everything: governance, payments, autonomy, citizenship, employment… It’s like an ultimate centralized politburo, but built on decentralized libertarian principles. It’s a meta-crisis approach, where geniuses solve the universal problem from the top down — even if they think they’re doing it by creating the universal system through which people solve the universal problem from the bottom up. It didn’t work for the Soviet bureaucracy, and it won’t work for the crypto feudalists.

It didn’t even work for Enlightenment values, or the Jewish quest for liberal humanism that informed it. These systems of thought absolutely work in theory, but they deny people their parochial, local, grounded identity. People exist in the particular. In a local, bounded reality. No, these great ideas, these systems of laws and structural solutions are fallback mechanisms for when the local is failing.

Sure, think about these things and join whatever movement you want. But I believe that 99% of us or more should be invested in our own communities. We can do favors for each other; take care of the elderly person down the block or on the 12th floor; help working parents take care of their kids; teach someone to read; clean up the park, or create one in that disused lot. Start a food pantry — one that doesn’t just institutionalize your neighborhood’s food shortage, but looks to eradicate it. If you don’t have time or energy to do any of that, just try being as nice as possible to people around you, no matter how shitty your day has been so far.

Dignity is not something you reach up for. It’s something that starts wherever your feet touch the ground.

Restore the soil. Collect compost, grow ground cover, learn to farm. Or farm your insides. Learn about the gut biome, make yogurt, sauerkraut, share it with others. The more you put your hands in the soil, the healthier your gut biome grows. Yes, this is where human dignity lives. Not in the abstract. It’s right there down in the poop. Dignity is not something you reach up for. It’s something that starts wherever your feet touch the ground. (Or whatever body part of yours contacts the earth.)

Our ignorance and disregard for the living soil on which everything about us depends is analogous to our disregard for the living soul in each and every one of us. I don’t mean religious soul, necessarily, but the living, intentional, dignified, human in each of us. It’s not out there, either in the ideals to which we aspire or the metrics we are able to produce. The measurement-based human — the quantified self, as Microsoft’s researchers used to call it — is about something else entirely. It’s not human or alive at all. It’s more of a market phenomenon. It’s part of a symbol system. Numbers or, at best, words.

When we think of ourselves that way, we may as well be replaced by AIs and robots. That’s all happening for a reason. They are necessarily more efficient than us. They will always beat us in terms of utility value — especially in the short term, and especially if you don’t look at things like energy or resource consumption. And as our robots rise to replace us in industry and entertainment, many of us are desperately searching for what it means to be human.

What we have is our dignity. Our faith that we are more than our outputs. We have our conviction that our words and ideas are mere signifiers for something else — not for more abstract ideals, but for lived experiences too complex to even articulate. We have our capacity for a lived reality, on the ground, in which we are as intimately and inexplicably interrelated as the soil from which we come, and through which we all return.

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Douglas Rushkoff

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm