In 1980, she wrote “the handbook for the New Age.” Twenty-five years later, what has become of her predictions for a new world? Ode spoke with Marilyn Ferguson. “The world only changes because we do.”
“Our society must be remade, not just mended.” So wrote Marilyn Ferguson 25 years ago in the preface to her bestseller The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (Tarcher, 1980), of which 2.5 million copies were published. The book described how new scientific discoveries and a deeper insight into human consciousness would radically change the world. A new phase in evolution had arrived.
At the time, Ferguson took inspiration from the end of the astrological Age of Aquarius. “Whether or not it was written in the stars, a different age seems to be upon us; and Aquarius, the waterbearer in the ancient zodiac, symbolizing flow and the quenching of an ancient thirst, is an appropriate symbol.”
Now, it’s 2005, a quarter of a century later. Look around and you see mostly old solutions and paradoxical strategies: war to achieve peace, pollution on the way to increased prosperity. What happened to the promise of renewal held out by the “handbook of the New Age,” as The Aquarian Conspiracy was dubbed? To answer that question, Ferguson has written a new book, due out in November: Aquarius Now: Radical Common Sense and Reclaiming Our Personal Sovereignty (Weiser Books).
We meet in a hotel with a view of San Francisco Bay, in the city that’s one of the putative cradles of the New Age movement. Ferguson has the gray hair of a sixty-something woman and a young, pugnacious spirit. “Back then, I thought the future would only get better. It was only later that I realized all golden ages are the products of desperate times.” In other words: things have to get worse before they can get better. Poverty, famine and terrorism can still bode well.
She writes in her new book: “Each society believes it is on the knife-edge of knowledge and looks back with pity on peoples of earlier times because of their ignorance. We forget that future generations will look back on us the same way.”
In 1980, Ferguson astutely perceived the changing zeitgeist. She described how the work of a handful of pioneers—among them the late physicists Ilya Prigogine and David Bohm, who had picked up the torch from Albert Einstein—demonstrated that our existence was based not on a predictable linearity but on a scarcely predictable self-organization, and how consciousness-expanding experiments would give people a whole new view of organization and society.
The future she described then can be recognized today. Hierarchically controlled organizations, for example, are disappearing, and people’s need to shape their personal lives in completely individual ways is causing more and more open, disconnected structures to appear. It’s also clear that an ever-growing number of homeopaths, chiropractors, yoga studios, forward-thinking educational experiments, organic supermarkets, meditation courses and innovative organizational structures – borne on a tide of related literature—has touched many individual lives, just as Ferguson foresaw. And yet the necessary social change which she expected to accompany all this does not seem to have taken place. The freer organizational forms that characterize more and more businesses, for example, can hardly, or not at all, be seen in government – the organization of society.
In The Aquarian Conspiracy, Ferguson described what was going happen and why the world was due for a transformation, but she did not explain how that revolution would take place. She spoke of a “conspiracy” because the desire for renewal did not spring from a new political ideology and was not bound by a new organization, but instead was hallmarked by a host of unattached parallel developments. Is this unattachedness the reason the new era has not yet dawned?
In her new book, Aquarius Now, Ferguson investigates how the world can achieve the transformation it needs to conquer the challenges of poverty, famine and pollution. She concludes that, while the Aquarian conspirators have subjected themselves to increasing self-scrutiny, they have thus far not elected to subject their society to this new critical gaze. Her conclusion is a familiar one: if you want to change the world, start by changing yourself. And what’s more: humanity must reinvent itself in order to be able to survive.
Ferguson goes on to offer an interesting prescription: use your common sense. That sounds more like a motto of the conservative powers that be than a rallying cry for the pursuit of renewal. Ferguson points out, however, that “common sense” doesn’t so much refer to knowledge of indisputable facts but to an attitude of continuous investigation: “Common sense isn’t what we know, but how we know it.”
Ferguson writes: “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe it was considered unhealthy to take a bath. And more than two hundred years ago people thought tomatoes were poisonous.” She is of the opinion that people are using their common sense less and less, and are more inclined to rigidly cling to assumptions that are incorrect or harmful to them. “We have a mistaken idea about progress. Not everything is getting better. Prosperity goes hand in hand with ‘Western diseases’ and undermining the environment. In certain respects it seems as if we are getting dummier and dummier. We know that it is harmful for us if we damage the environment we live in, but we do it anyway.”
All this must change, in a radical way—that other key concept in the subtitle of her new book. The word “radical” has acquired a political tint, but it refers to the Latin world for “root”—essence. “Radical common sense” is, in Marilyn Ferguson’s vision, more than being careful and attentive: it is the realization that change is necessary for survival. Where we once had idealism, we now need radical common sense.
Today, Ferguson is critical of the group she described 25 years ago as the vanguard of the New Age. “The so-called New Age people like to say, ‘It is all going to happen anyway.’ No, it is going to happen because we are going to do it.” Self-importance and decadence have led to decline time and time again throughout history. And by the way, “‘New Age’ is actually a very bad term. It’s not a New Age at all, but rather a return to past values.”
Human beings have lost much of their original curiosity, according to Ferguson. “We are products of our upbringing. We have learned that there are ‘right’ answers, and we stop learning after we graduate. We leave the thinking to experts and specialists who like to put everything in terms of familiar formulas, whereas scientific breakthroughs and the like have in the past often been the result of accidents and coincidences, or of curiosity. These days progress is being suffocated by numbers, rules and formulas, by the need to keep control over every development from the beginning.”
This need for control also feeds the narrow-mindedness that dominates contemporary society. We are educating one-sided people, whereas human beings, according to Ferguson, are generalists by nature, with many interests and qualities. People who live in remote places are versatile by necessity: they do not delegate their health to doctors, their education to schools, nor their decisions to officials. For the past two hundred years, specialization has seemed to be an efficient method. It’s been thought that it would be most beneficial to the community if everyone did their best to play their individual part—an idea taken from Adam Smith.
But what good is specialization when more and more things are turning out to be connected? The environment has become an international matter. Proper health care begins with education. Challenges like these call for versatile minds. But how can humans get their versatility back? This question is the thread that runs through Aquarius Now. In the book Ferguson discusses a number of human talents that could provide solutions to the planet’s crisis. Mental laziness must make way for a need to push boundaries, as athletes do. “We were not designed for vacation,” she says. We thrive on challenges. We are driven by seeking comfort and loving novelty.” She refers to the book The Psychobiology of Cancer, by the US doctor Augustin de la Peña, which suggests that the rise in the number of cancer cases in Western societies reflects an increase in the sensation of boredom—the feeling that one has seen it all.
Genuinely attentive observation, using all the senses, is another necessary ingredient for stimulating versatility. How can we learn to look at reality with different eyes? Ferguson asks. She quotes Thomas Paine, one of the founders of the United States, who wrote, “Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution… We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.”
Changing one’s thoughts—changing one’s mind—changes the world. Ferguson therefore also argues for spontaneity, intuition and creativity. And she warns immediately against the consequences: “Creative people have always felt separated from their societies. It’s as if they see too well the contrast between what is and what could be.” But visionaries—people who are not afraid of their own ideas—are the only people who can show us the way to a better future. As the Dalai Lama says: “Do not fear fearlessness.”
We must conquer our fear, because, in Marilyn Ferguson’s view, it is ultimately nothing less than our freedom that is at stake. In Aquarius Now she writes, “We have the political freedoms to create the lives we wish to lead and the world we want to live in. But we are passive. We do not make use of our freedom. We have given away the fundamental freedom to visualize and shape our world. We allow actors, advertisers and politicians to dream for us. And a culture that does not dream is not free. We are not citizens but consumers. It is as if we live in a totalitarian society. We refrain from breaking out of our cultural prison for fear we might piss off the guards. Instead of embracing freedom, we seem to be saying, ‘Don’t hurt me and I won’t make any trouble.’“
This apathy Ferguson describes is recognizable. How often do we hear someone sigh that “there’s no point” in mentioning some wrong or other? Only a few people take the trouble to speak out against injustice. Many don’t bother making any effort to limit their waste production, because “my little bit extra doesn’t make any difference.” The lumbering, anonymous collective has anesthetized the feeling of individual responsibility. That anesthetization stands in the way of Ferguson’s plea for the reinvention of humanity.
The prospect seems bleak. But Marilyn Ferguson doesn’t want to hear about pessimism: “I’m an incorrigible optimist. We can choose at any moment for freedom, because it’s always within our grasp. Our imprisonment is nothing more than a mental condition. On the one hand, I wonder how we can be so stupid when we have so much knowledge? Take the challenge of climate change. The statistics and the science are clear: we are destroying the earth’s ecosystem. On the other hand, in that threat I also see the solution. You can still fight a war over oil, but where do you drop the bombs if you want to tackle climate change? That’s a problem that can only be solved through international cooperation. So climate change could very well turn out to be the match that ignites the transformation.”
Ferguson also believes the growing complexity of the world’s problems contributes to a positive evolution. There are no clear answers any longer, and that’s a good thing: “Once we accept that we do not know everything, we can also begin to accept that impossible ideas are probably possible.”
And complexity has another favorable outcome: it forces us to arrive at new insights and a new level of organization. Complexity gets in the way of simple answers—it kills them off by the dozen, because they can only offer an answer to one part, and not the whole problem. Ferguson says, “It is as if we are naturally being pushed toward the correct solution. At a certain point there’s only one thing left to do: what’s right.”
But changing the individual is still the basis for changing society. “The new world cannot be designed through laws or institutions,” Ferguson says. “Society is the sum of our assumptions and behaviours. Renewal can only be realized through inner revolution. The world will change when we change.”
In other words: the future of the world is up to us. And that, after all, is an optimistic conclusion. Twenty-five years on, Marilyn Ferguson can offer no more evidence or security to seekers hoping for positive change. The Aquarian Conspiracy charted the beginning of a shift and opened the eyes of many. The message of Aquarius Now may be less mind-blowing, but it is more provocative: it’s the reader’s move.
The Aquarius conspirators could yet be proved right. But it will take some doing. “Can we become a new kind of people?” is the question Marilyn Ferguson poses at the end of her preface to Aquarius Now. And this is how she answers it: “That’s an outrageous goal. Conventional wisdom says it can’t be done. Radical common sense says we’re foolish not to try.”