2023 began with some political and economic optimism – a rousing first speech by new House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and a robust jobs report that has somewhat quelled fears of an oncoming recession. On the first Now & Then episode of the year, “Things Are Looking Up? A New Year’s Show,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman examined past moments of transition and optimism in American life, from the onset of the Era of Good Feelings to the 1964 arrival of the Beatles in New York. Another conversation about epochal shifts flooded American popular culture in 1980, triggered by New Age author Marilyn Ferguson’s optimistic book The Aquarian Conspiracy. 

Marilyn Ferguson was born in Grand Junction, Colorado in 1938. A poet and short story author, she moved to Houston and began working on economic self-help material with her husband in 1968, publishing a book called Champagne Living on a Beer Budget that helped to popularize house trades as a way of avoiding expensive hotels while on vacations. 

In the early 1970s, Ferguson, by this point living in Los Angeles, began exploring burgeoning research into Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) and parapsychology. Her findings resulted in a book-length report on the field, the 1973 The Brain Revolution: The Frontier of Mind Research (“Just how vast is the potential of the human brain?” asked a full-page ad for the book that ran in the New York Times). She also began editing the Brain/Mind Bulletin, a journal about neuroscience and human behavior that developed a small but passionate following. 

In 1977, Ferguson polled 210 diverse respondents on their feelings about a broad set of spiritual and consciousness-based trends that went beyond the established bounds of science. The results surprised her. She found that 96% of her respondents expressed belief in telepathy, 94% in psychic healing, 89% in precognition, 88% in clairvoyance, and 76% in consciousness surviving bodily death.

Ferguson showed the findings to Jeremy Tarcher, a maverick Los Angeles publisher who had once written for the original Star Trek television series and was known for publishing books on yoga and neuroscience. 

Tarcher later recounted to the New York Times his initial astonishment at seeing the results: “I called Mrs. Ferguson because I was interested in her Brain/Mind Bulletin newsletter, and we went to lunch. She gave me a folder of material. I started to read it and I started to cry. It expressed all the things most important to my heart.”

Ferguson and Tarcher set to work synthesizing her findings and the most compelling information from Brain/Mind to create a paean to an emerging “New Age.”  

In a March 1979 interview with San Francisco radio station KQED’s “New Dimensions” program, Ferguson – in the midst of her book-writing process – delineated her theory that the assimilation of 1960s counterculture leaders and their ideas into more mainstream American society was beginning to create a more equitable world. 

“Many of the leaders of those movements – it figures because if they were a vanguard, then there would be a vanguard now– became involved in interior searches and came from their own centers when they have re-emerged, and many of them are now in influential positions of government and [are] really, really having an impact and are in the establishment or closely allied with the establishment,” Ferguson explained. 

In February 1980, Ferguson published her book, The Aquarian Conspiracy. Ferguson did not mean to suggest anything nefarious. Rather, she was cribbing from influential French Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who had suggested that a “conspiracy of love” was necessary to save humankind. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had done much to resuscitate the phrase in 1976, when he invoked Teilhard’s conspiracy during a speech advocating for environmentalism to the United Nations Habitat conference

The conspiracy, as described by Ferguson: “A leaderless but powerful network is working to bring about radical change in the United States. Its members have broken with certain key elements of Western thought and they may have even broken continuity with history.” 

Ferguson argued that the growing pains of contemporary America–militarism, class divisions, consumerism – were peeling away amid the new focus on the spiritual she chronicled through Brain/Mind and her survey. “The symbolic power of the pervasive dream in our culture: that after a dark, violent age, the Piscean, we are entering a millennium of love and light – in the words of the popular song, ‘The Age of Aquarius,’ the time of the mind’s true liberation,” Ferguson wrote.

Ferguson was particularly excited about the effect of New Age communications methods – more honest dialogue about emotions, more space for awe, more openness about the potential to use technology to foster connection between professionals and social acquaintances alike. Much of the book was a breathless and enthusiastic survey of the research Ferguson’s colleagues had conducted in communication and consciousness studies.

The book not only covered the emergent transition from the Piscean Age to the so-called Aquarian Age of the New Wave, but also wove an ambitious historical web that suggested the paradigm shift was long in coming. Ferguson linked the Transcendentalists, John Muir’s environmentalism, and concepts from figures as diverse as Gandhi, Buckminster Fuller, and Saul Bellow to the arrival of her heralded Aquarian Age. 

The Aquarian Conspiracy initially saw middling returns, but soon word of the treatise began to spread, buoyed by some powerful endorsements. Arthur Koestler, the famed philosopher-novelist who wrote the allegorical anti-fascist 1940 classic Darkness at Noon, called the tome “stunning and provocative, yet solidly founded.” Economist Robert Muller, then the Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, was even more laudatory: “A remarkable, epoch-making book. I consider it to be the Silent Spring of the next millennium.” 

As the book took off, Ferguson, 42, divorced and raising three children in Los Angeles’ Mount Washington neighborhood, was suddenly a sought-after celebrity. To organize her new admirers, she started another newsletter, Leading Edge, which explored social transformations in business, the media, and the military. The newsletter quickly grew to 3,000 subscribers, and Ferguson hired a staff of eight to assist with her fledgling New Age empire. 

In a December 1980 interview with Los Angeles Times correspondent Wayne Warga, Ferguson noted that a wide swath of Americans had embraced her book–while the academy had been mostly dismissive. “The Eastern establishment intellectuals have studiously ignored both me and my book,” she declared. 

Ferguson also described how the forward-focused worlds of commerce and technology had been far more positive about her text. “The thing that pleases me, however, is that the business community is probably the most open, the most receptive group to what I’m saying. When you think about it, though, you understand why: They have to anticipate the future. That’s what business is about.” 

While Ferguson largely stayed away from partisan political issues, she was vocal in her support for nuclear disarmament. She told Warga, however, that she believed a move away from global militarism began with bringing more transparency and trust to more microcosmic social interactions: “People can hardly disarm the planet if they don’t disarm themselves. So what is it in human beings that makes us project enemies? We go to a party, or a meeting, or anywhere where there will be strangers, and we assume that people will be judging us; we perceive a threat, even though the other person is thinking exactly the same thing.”

And she wrapped up her conceptualization of a more open society by suggesting books like hers could be a model for change. “If we all started telling each other the truth about ourselves and our fears, it would be a beginning of a whole other level of human communication,” Ferguson said. “People are still frightened of change, but they see it happening anyway – so we can begin to talk about the nature of the future we want.” 

Ferguson’s book heralded a glut of other seminal texts exploring the New Age directions of American life, such as Futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1980 The Third Wave (in which he impressively predicted the shape of the Internet) and his contemporary John Naisbitt’s blockbuster 1982 Megatrends

Yet even as Ferguson’s gospel was well-received and influential in spiritual, Futurist, and business realms, the book did develop some very loud enemies.

Michael Marion, the editor of the forward-looking newsletter Future Survey, was quoted in a 1984 Christian Science Monitor profile of Ferguson critiquing what he viewed as her irresponsibly happy-go-lucky attitude: “Making a religion out of social change–developing a body of unquestioned belief derived from concern for the human condition and hope for a better world–only serves to deflect energies away from the hard work that must be done.”

Louder fringe critics also emerged. In June 1980, Lyndon LaRouche – a different brand of conspiracy theorist and a perennial presidential candidate who was often accused of running something resembling a cult – published a 64-page screed against Ferguson entitled “Stamp Out the Aquarian Conspiracy.” 

The cover of the diatribe included a portrait of President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski hovering above a rectangular collage of New Age-inflected shots – an anti-nuclear demonstration, a gay rights parade, a “consciousness-raising” session. 

LaRouche’s contention was that Ferguson’s book was actually a government-backed psyop, orchestrated through a labyrinthine web of think tanks led by England’s Tavistock Institute, NATO, and Stanford’s powerful Social Research Institute (SRI). LaRouche even contended that SRI’s well-connected director, Willis Harman, had effectively fed the text to Ferguson. 

While fellow Futurists saw Ferguson as too rosy and spiritual, Carl A. Raschke, a University of Denver Religious Studies professor, argued that The Aquarian Conspiracy was chipping away at traditional American values. Raschke, interviewed for a 1986 New York Times piece exploring broader New Age criticism, said, “I think it’s as much a political movement as a religious movement, and it’s spreading into business management theory and a lot of other areas. If you look at it carefully you see it represents a complete rejection of Judeo-Christian and bedrock American values.” 

The book, however, remained a bestseller, passing 375,000 copies sold in 1984. Even as New Age and Futurist visions gave way to the overwhelming presentism and perceived rationality of the Cold War’s end and the rise of the Internet, Ferguson remained a lauded thinker. Al Gore, a longtime fan, invited Ferguson to the White House while he was Vice President. 

Amid the uncertainty of 2023, we have a whole swath of often-controversial technological utopians – Elon Musk perhaps chief among them – alongside a group of Left and Right public intellectuals arguing that American society must shift dramatically to survive.  With these widely disparate takes on our collective path forward, Ferguson’s excited prose predictions feel decidedly familiar.

For more on the influence and parameters of the New Age movement, check out the 1992 essay collection Perspectives on the New Age, edited by James R. Lewis and R. Gordon Melton. 

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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