by Charles Eisenstein

The Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the convergence of crises that is birthing the transition

The Age of Water


In a future where all costs are fully internalized and in which no object is created mindless of its origins and consequences, it would seem that technology itself would be nearly impossible. Many thinkers, recognizing the long-term unsustainability of industry even at 12th century levels, and perhaps even of agricultural civilization,[26] can offer no alternative but a long descent back to the Stone Age, an erasure of the series of blunders that have brought us to our present condition.

Admittedly, Stone Age life seems pretty fine to me, but as I have hinted throughout this book, I believe that the errors of our mad, senseless age are nonetheless setting the stage for a new phase of human development that brings the past into the future rather than trying to bring the future back to the past. Machine Age technology is fundamentally unsustainable, yes, but let us not assume that all possible technology shares this trait. In this section I will outline a new mode of technology, already emerging, that is an extension and not a violation of nature.

In Chapter Two I wrote:

The unsustainability of our present system derives at bottom from its linearity, its assumption of an infinite reservoir of inputs and limitless capacity for waste. A fitting metaphor for such a system is fire, which involves a one-way conversion of matter from one form to another, liberating energy—heat and light—in the process. Just as our economy is burning through all forms of stored cultural and natural wealth to liberate energy in the form of money, so also does our industry burn up stored fossil fuels to liberate the energy that powers our technology. Both generate heat for a while, but also increasing amounts of cold, dead, toxic ash, gunk, and pollution, whether the ash-heap of wasted human lives or the strip-mine pits and toxic waste dumps of industry.

Fire is natural; in fact it takes biological form in any aerobic being as the liberation of stored energy through oxidation. Nature only lasts because there are other steps, powered by sunlight, by which the ash is reincorporated into forms of stored energy. An economy that is sustainable must do the same; it cannot be based on fire alone, in either its literal or metaphoric form. The restorative economy, then, will have a technological infrastructure that is not based on the technologies of fire.

From the Mayan perspective, we could view fire as a borrowing or a stealing from Gaia. When we burn wood, we replace the slow oxidative processes that would ordinarily sustain generations of insects and fungi with the rapid oxidation of fire, therefore reducing life’s possibility. According to Martin Prechtel’s logic, any fire-making, even the smallest campfire, should therefore be accompanied by some kind of ritual payment proportional to the quantity of fuel burned. A society that is truly sustainable would only use the technologies of fire with great circumspection.

The technology described in the previous section is not so different from what we have today, for it still seeks to impose human control onto nature. A bike path, for instance, requires keeping that strip of earth away from its natural state. As the Maya realized, any technology by which nature is put under control and bent to human purposes entails a price, that primitive cultures recognized and paid, and that we have attempted to evade. Even if no actual fire—no preemption of oxidative energy stored in biomass—is used, any technology that embodies fire’s consumptive linearity and its cooptation of natural processes still runs on the fire model. Since almost all of our present technology derives somehow from fire, or seeks, like a bike path, to subdue nature, many ecologically-oriented futurists quite naturally assume that a sustainable future means a low-tech future.

This conclusion falls apart if we can envision a mode of technology not based on fire. I envision a high-tech future, but one whose technology is so dramatically different from our own that it is almost unrecognizable as “technology” to present ways of thinking. The end of the Age of Fire promises a reversal of the course of separation and domination that fire has fueled. Immersed as we are in the ideology of separation, it is hard to conceive of a mode of technology that does not involve the objectification, domination, and control of nature. Yet such technologies exist, even if we hardly recognize them as such. They are based not on fire but on earth, water, light, sound, and the human body. Rooted in an ancient past, they nonetheless carry the promise of a “new age”. Who knows what unconscious wisdom has named it the “Age of Aquarius”? But I shall call it the Age of Water.

Water (to risk stating the obvious) carries metaphorical connotations very different from those of fire. Water denies linearity: cycling endlessly, it is also the agent of nature’s cycles, nourishing both growth and decay. Similarly it resists separation: named the “universal solvent”, it tends away from purity to partake of its environment. Water is also the nemesis of control. Seeking out the tiniest crack, nothing can hold it in. As waves in the ocean, it destroys any bulwark. Whereas fire burns clean and purifies what it touches, water makes a mess. Hence the key to preserving anything—houses, books, food, clothes, metal—is to keep it dry.

Water, with its cycles and flows, its unruliness and its ubiquity on earth, could be called the essence of nature. To keep everything dry, and therefore outside the cycle of decay, transformation, and renewal, is a concrete expression of our separation from nature. It is this cleavage between human and nature to which the Age of Reunion will put an end.

Earlier I asked, “Since human beings are themselves natural, then isn’t everything we make and do natural too?” To be natural isn’t a matter of who designed something or what materials it is made from. The products of the human hand are only unnatural to the extent they pretend to a linearity that defies the cyclical laws of nature. The industrial ecology described above is natural, in that there is no waste. So I am saying more than “technology will be in harmony with nature”. Technology will be natural. We need not abandon our uniquely human gifts and return to the Stone Age or before. Instead, we will recover a Stone Age mentality in the context of modern technology. Underlying the future technological economy will be principles of interdependence, cyclicity, abundance, and the gift mentality. Can you think of a better simile for all four of these principles, than that they are like water? Water, upon which all depends. Water, which moves in cycles. Water, abundant to ubiquity. Water, bringing the gift of life.

Our dependence on water—the fact that we are made mostly of water—denies the primary conceit of civilization, that we are separate from nature or even nature’s master. No more nature’s master are we, than we are the master of water!

Yet for centuries we have tried to persuade ourselves otherwise. In science our pretense of mastery manifests most fundamentally in the supposition that water is a structureless jumble of identical molecules, a generic medium, any two drops the same. To a standard substance we can apply universal equations. That each part of the universe is unique is profoundly troubling to any science based on the general application of standard techniques. The same is true of technology. Only a universe constructed of generic building blocks is amenable to control. Just as the architectural engineer assumes that two steel beams of identical composition will have identical properties, so does the chemist believe the same of two samples of pure H2O.

That any two samples of H2O, or graphite, or ethanol, or any other pure chemical are identical is a dogma with enormous ramifications. It implies that the complexity and uniqueness of objects of our senses is an illusion, that they are mere permutations of the same standard building blocks. Such a view naturally corresponds to the objectification of the world, which makes of it a collection of things, masses.

The opposite view sees every piece of the universe as unique. No two drops of water, no two rocks, no two electrons are identical, but each has a unique individuality. This is essentially the view of animism, which assigned to each animate and inanimate object a spirit. To a Stone Age person, the idea that water from any source had a unique character or spirit would have seemed obvious. Modern chemistry denies it and says any apparent differences are merely due to impurities—the underlying water is the same. Animism says no—to have a spirit is to be unique, irreducibly and intrinsically unique. To have a spirit is to be special.

With the dawning of the Age of Water, we return to our animistic roots and recognize the unique, enspirited nature of each drop of water and indeed every substance in the universe. Not even the field of chemistry is immune to this paradigm shift, as it becomes increasingly apparent that water does indeed exhibit structure on several levels. Chemists and materials scientists are now recognizing that structure maintained by hydrogen bonds and van der Waals forces is responsible for many of water’s anomalous properties. Few, however, believe that this structure can convey information to biological systems. Yes, water has structure, they might admit, but there is no signal in the noise.

Now let’s leave the mainstream behind and take a journey away from scientific respectability. Our first stopping place is the empirical science of homeopathy, which has been developed over two centuries to a remarkable degree of sophistication despite the absence of any cogent reductionistic theoretical underpinnings. In other words, no one really knows how it works. What is clear, however, is that it somehow uses water to convey the information embodied in natural substances to the body. Two different homeopathic samples of high potency may both be chemically pure H2O, but they are far from identical in their effects—a contention that has drawn considerable derision from critics!

Perhaps because it is based upon water, homeopathy fosters a philosophy of healing very different from the conquest of nature that characterizes fire-based allopathy. Allopathic medicine is based on control: killing microbes, dictating hormone levels, cutting out organs and tumors. Whereas allopathic medicine dominates nature, homeopathic medicine sees nature as the body’s teacher. The homeopath seeks out the natural substance that can teach the body a healthier pattern of being. Looking within nature instead of seeking to defeat or transcend it, the homeopath approaches healing in the spirit of water instead of fire.

A bit further outside the mainstream is flower essence therapy, which, having been developed primarily through intuitive rather than empirical means, I prefer to call an art rather than a science. As in homeopathy, water serves as a carrier for information originating in flowers or other natural objects, used primarily for emotional or spiritual healing. Here again, each drop of water is unique; here again, even more explicitly than in homeopathy, each drop of water is understood to possess a unique spirit.

Masura Emoto, a Japanese businessman, takes these ideas to their logical extreme. Emoto photographed ice crystals of water that he’d subjected to various influences: electromagnetic, emotional, musical, and so forth. The crystals exhibited striking differences, even when he simply taped different messages onto jars containing samples of distilled water from the same source. For example, the samples shown words like “devil”, “you fool!” and so on froze into ugly, amorphous ice, while those shown words like “love”, “gratitude”, and “cosmos” formed beautiful crystals.[27] Despite an extensive search, I have found no serious refutation of Emoto’s findings. Critics typically point to his failure to implement double-blinded controls and his on-line Ph.D., but apparently the substance of his work is beneath them to even address. True, his work is not rigorous, but it isn’t meant to be. It is beautiful and, to those to whom it “rings true”, suggestive of further directions in research.

Essentially, Emoto’s work confirms the metaphorical associations of water as a universal medium, a universal solvent not only for physical materials but for thoughts, feelings, energy, and information. Water carries the imprint of its environment, and since each lake, river, glass, or drop of water is uniquely located on earth, each is subject to a unique combination of influences. At the same time, since this “environment” extends to include the whole planet and beyond, each drop of water contains the informational imprint of the whole. Emoto’s work suggests that our every thought and intention affects every drop of water on earth; it’s just that the intended target of that intention, along with the water within our own bodies, is most strongly affected.

A primitive hunter-gatherer would not find it difficult to believe that all water had a unique personality, that river water, lake water, rain water, spring water, and water taken from the ground would have differing effects on the body and emotions, and perhaps distinct ceremonial uses as well. I imagine some languages don’t even use the same word for these different types of water. Similarly, a hunter-gatherer would find it easy to believe that beloved water would have different properties from despised water. That we believe all water to be a uniform, lifeless “substance” that can be made identical by removing its impurities is a reflection of our ideology of objectivity and mechanism. We once knew better, before we made of the world a thing, before we reduced the infinity of reality to a finitude of generic labels (like “water”). A future technology of water will recover this knowledge, and we will no longer treat water as anything less than sacred.

Emoto’s work suggests that we cannot escape the effects of our thoughts, words, and actions. Released into the universe, they leave their imprint there, in effect reconfiguring the reality in which we live. In an Age of Water we will understand this principle. We will understand that, like water, all things eventually cycle back to their source.

An Age of Water will imitate the water cycle in its economics as well. Fire is the epitome of consumption, and it has incinerated social and natural capital for millennia. Today we are seeing the precursors to the cyclical economy of the Age of Water. All of the features of the “restorative economy” I have described—resource recyling, zero-waste manufacturing, full-cost accounting, and non-interest currency systems—equally justify the appellation “water economy”. Like demurrage currency, like the energy of the gift, water resists confinement, moves from high places to low, and ultimately circles back to its source.

Perhaps the most profound transformation of the Age of Water will be in our spirituality—how we relate ourselves to the universe. Above, when speaking of animism, I said that each water droplet or other object “has a unique spirit”, but that is not quite correct. The conception of spirit as something to be “had”, and therefore extrinsic to matter, is a metaphor of separation and of fire. What animism actually implies is that each thing is a unique spirit, that matter itself is spiritual, sacred, and special. Spirit can no more be abstracted out from matter than structure can be removed from the water that carries it. The Age of Water, then, is an age in which we treat the earth and everything in it as sacred.

At the same time, water teaches us that the unique spirit of any bit of matter is not discrete and separate from the rest of reality. Like all things including ourselves, water takes on the spiritual qualities of everything that surrounds it; thanks to its ubiquity and receptivity, it is also the medium of this communion of all with all. Unique we are, each one of us, yet no more separate than two drops of water in the ocean. The Age of Separation comes to an end with the dawning of the Age of Water.

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[26] Many of the ancient world’s great agricultural civilizations eventually destroyed their ecosystems. The deforestation of the Greek islands and the desertification of Mesopotamia and North Africa illustrate the destructive capacity of even low levels of technology. On the other hand, I have read that certain areas of China have been under continuous cultivation for five thousand years.

[27] I first discovered Emoto’s work in a Chinese translation of his original Japanese book. Some of them are available on line: see

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