Too Many Rats in the Cage: Civilization Disease

civ disease chart 2

THE CYCLE OF DISCONNECTION

Almost everyone I know is depressed these days. Friends who are renowned as especially intelligent or informed seem to be the most vulnerable to this malaise, so perhaps ignorance is bliss. The brilliant cartoonist at Hyperbole and a Half has just returned after an eighteen-month bout of depression that completely debilitated her — and her latest post explains exactly how this feels. My filmmaker friend Tim Bennett wonders why the insightful writer David Foster Wallace, whose astonishing commencement address in 2005 told us exactly what we need to do to be really alive in this mad, deadening world, was so oppressed by his life he felt compelled to end it at age 46.

Of course, everyone’s experience with depression, and the kind of chronic grief, anger, sadness, and anxiety that afflicts so many of us, is different. Any attempt to “blame civilization” for our modern epidemic of chronic physical and mental disease is fraught with danger. Yet when the advertisers and politicians and media keep telling us life has never been better, the cognitive dissonance with the misery all around us is hard to ignore, and hard not to ascribe to something larger.

The faces on the people I know often carry the looks I see on caged animals, endlessly pacing (if these animals have room even to do that), as if they know something is terribly wrong but they’re not quite sure what it is. Call this what you wish — confinement, disconnection, domestication, oppression — the incapacity to be our true wild selves seems to be at the root of our disease. The problem is, seven billion people cannot be their true wild selves or, like a horrifically overcrowded cage of rats, the result would be large-scale violence and murder. Some would say that’s exactly what we have already.

When human population increased to the point our natural (for two million years) gatherer-hunter way of life was no longer viable, something had to change, and what successfully evolved to deal with that situation is we call “civilization”. There are different speculations about what caused this to occur — climate change, the extinction of large mammals due to our invention of the arrowhead, the reduction in habitat caused by the ice ages — but whatever the cause, we decided we had to leave the leisurely life of rainforest tree-living animals, spread out across the planet, and find some way to avoid mass starvation in lands we are not naturally adapted to living in.

Civilization was an ingenious invention, and it appears to have evolved independently at different times in different places on our planet. A key component was agriculture, which we apparently discovered by observing how monocultures flourished in the aftermath of disasters like forest fires and floods. By artificially replicating such disasters (burning, irrigation, poisoning) we were able to produce compact ‘farms’ of single-crop human foods capable of feeding many humans — far more than the land would naturally support. But these dense monoculture crops required huge amounts of labour and were extremely vulnerable to droughts and diseases, so instead of the wild, leisurely independent gatherer-hunter human cultures that had predominated for 2 million years, we needed to create a culture where most humans would stay put, accept the need for lifelong constant, hard, boring work, and tolerate the horrors of recurring famine. There is evidence that the Great Wall of China was built, not to keep the Mongolian invaders out, but to keep the peasants from fleeing the back-breaking toil and chronic disease of the rice paddies.

It is not easy to domesticate wild humans, but it can be done. Just as rats in overcrowded cages start to form oppressive hierarchies so that at least the alphas will survive (while the rest perish from starvation, suicide, and eating their own young), human civilizations needed hierarchy, class differentiation, specialization, and a power structure to work. They require constant coercion and propaganda (hence the invention of modern languages, principally to allow instructions, lies and threats to be passed down from the overseers). They require disconnection from the natural world (no more longing for a wild life), confinement (and incarceration for the disobedient, so they are made an example of), constant surveillance, and creation of a state of dependence on the society’s systems and their masters.

food production chart

When successfully implemented (and they’ve been so successful that they’ve quickly merged into a single, ubiquitous, global civilization culture), these civilizations both support and require a large population of workers, creating a vicious cycle. But there are many unintended consequences of this cycle. One is that, as Quinn and others have explained, the more food that is produced, the faster the population grows to consume it, so civilizations quickly experience population explosions. Another is that domesticated living, though ‘successful’ from an evolutionary standpoint, is extremely stressful and extremely vulnerable to failures (crops, diseases, insurrections, and the natural diseconomies of scale, among others).

Once it reaches a certain point in its cycle (and all civilizations eventually collapse), civilization cultures enter a state of dysfunction and dis-ease. There’s some evidence we reached this point about 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of what we have chosen to call “history” (perhaps because we don’t want to compare modern ‘progress’ against the impossibly high standard of prehistory, so we pretend life before modern civilization was always nasty, short and brutish, when evidence suggests it only became so under civilization culture).

Civilization disease is a complex phenomenon, but it’s easy to see the symptoms all around us: people living in a constant state of stress, fear, anxiety, grief, anger and sadness; endemic boredom, escapism and addiction; endless and escalating wars and intertribal and internal violence; large parts of the population traumatized and dissociative as a result of early childhood exposure to domestic violence, abandonment and rage; epidemics of chronic physical and emotional illnesses; systems collapsing from diseconomies of scale (more about this in my next article); large segments of the population debilitated and socially dysfunctional; and the kind of constant, numbing grief for the massive loss of biodiversity, the ghastly desolation of our planet and exhaustion of its resources, the endless and horrific suffering of creatures, human and non, in our increasingly brutal civilization cutlure, and our dread and insecurity about the crises we see looming before us.

We are all suffering from civilization disease, though of course it manifests itself differently in each of us, and we are brainwashed into believing it’s our own (or some other immoral or criminal individual’s) fault, rather than the inevitable result of exposure to civilization in the declining state of its cycle. It’s a complex system phenomenon, so we search in vain for a ‘cure’ for this disease: new leadership, redistribution of wealth and power, better innovation and technology, reinvention, salvation, a transcendence of human consciousness.

No one cedes power voluntarily, and we’re now seeing the evidence of a desperate, understandable (and totally uncoordinated) attempt by the currently powerful (and their lackeys and the dumbed-down masses) to ratchet up the collapsing systems to new levels of ‘efficiency’ and global reach and hence prolong the status quo just a little longer. This will only make the ultimate collapse worse, but there’s no telling them that.

So now we see massive incarceration, perpetual wars, ghastly and massive factory farms, genocides, the militarization and bulking up of the police and surveillance state (allegedly in the interests of ‘homeland security’), the pathologization of everything, the total corporatization of the media, ‘health’, and ‘education’ systems, large-scale pharmaceutical sedation of the population, the consumerization and ‘ownership’ of everything (as a kind of new, distracting religion), rampant social escapism and inurement rituals (porn, ultraviolent films, hazing, gang rituals, drug and alcohol abuse), and the intensification of the distracting blame-everyone-else game (terrorists, bad parents, laziness, government, conspirators, evil deranged elites).

Not surprising, then, that anyone who has the time, energy and opportunity to study what’s going on in our world is depressed. Einstein, in talking about the development of the nuclear bomb, confided that the more he and others learned about the state of the world, the more pessimistic they became about society’s capacity to deal with it effectively. Metaphorically at least, the alpha humans in civilization’s global cage are hoarding and exhibiting increasing violence towards the rest, and the rest are showing increasing signs of eating their young.

Look around, and you’ll see the evidence everywhere. The way David Foster Wallace saw it, before he was swamped by his illness:

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way… If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness… None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It … has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves [about it] over and over… It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.

 Tim Bennett asks the obvious question:

I write today mostly because I don’t know what else to do. And I write, in the end, with the faint hope and utter certainty that Wallace is right, that love and connection and the sacred can be snatched out of this cold, hard Universe by a simple human choice, even in the face of our Near Term Extinction. Can I choose to find my own life now, and then live it before I die?

What can we do in the face of all this, to realize Life Before Death? When our whole civilization culture is dying a horrible death, and taking with it much of the rest of life on earth in its ghastly, desperate grasp for a few more days of existence, where do we find meaning, or purpose, or direction, or motivation, to go on, to decide what to do?

I wouldn’t presume to answer this question for anyone else (I’ve learned that much from ten years of introspective blogging). I can only tell you my own ‘personal disease management’ strategy, in case that’s of use to you, either with some of its ideas or the implicit process by which I came up with it.

This strategy has six components:

  1. Self-knowledge and self-awareness: Practices and study that show me who I really am and make me aware of what’s happening in me in the moment and how I’m presenting myself to others. I can’t help how I react or how I feel, but it’s useful to be aware of what I’m doing and feeling and thinking, and why. It’s grounding, and helps me pull out of the tyranny of negative emotions.
  2. Self-acceptance and self-appreciation: So many people I know are dependent on others for their feelings of self-worth, and are always trying to ‘improve’ themselves. So I practice little appreciations of myself, and learning (as hard as it is with the influence of our culture) to accept and love myself for who I am. I’m getting much better at being good to myself.
  3. Knowing the cause of our disease (and that it’s complex and hopeless): In the process of chronicling the collapse of our civilization on this blog, I’ve done a huge amount of study and thinking about how the world really works, and why. Understanding complexity has been a huge breakthrough for me, liberating me from the foolish belief that we can reform civilization if we try hard enough, or that someone or some group is somehow to blame for it all. This has also allowed me to liberate myself from the propaganda of the media, since I have stopped reading ‘news’ that is clearly oversimplified, deliberately distorted, unactionable, and needlessly stressful.
  4. Learning and honing capacities that are useful and/or fun: In The Once and Future King, Merlyn says “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn–pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics–why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until is it is time to learn to plough.” I’ve identified some of the capacities that might be useful, but in learning new things I’m guided more by what’s fun, what’s play, because that’s how I learn best. In my work with facilitators and Transition I’m also working to help groups that I’m part of learn collective capacities, again mainly through games and play (role-plays etc.) This is essential to reducing our dependence on civilization culture, so we are no longer vested in its continuance.
  5. Reconnection practices: I’ve written a lot about my search to become more present, because I really believe that if I can get outside my head and truly live in the moment, outside my head, with my body and senses and instincts connected with each other and with all life on earth, everything else I am trying to do, and to be, will suddenly become much easier. Another part of my reconnection practices is connecting with other people in community, moving past my social anxiety and arrogant misanthropy, and in so doing learning how to build community, collaboratively. This is also about finding others who share my sensibilities and connecting on a deep level with them: Understanding we’re not alone in this struggle for understanding and healing at the end of civilization’s empire, and coping with grief. Learning to collaborate with others in working on other parts of this strategy and projects we care about.
  6. Personal rewilding exercises: I’ve managed to deschool myself, but that’s just the first part of my rehabilitation — not to make me fit better into civilization culture, but rather to make me fit better into the cultures that will follow its collapse. Most of these exercises are rewilding practices, part of re-becoming animal. They include making art, making music, making love (in every sense of the word), and un-domesticating myself.

My hope is that I can ‘model’ a way of living following this strategy and these practices that will give others the self-confidence to pursue a similar strategy and find their own liberation and disease management practices. I have a long way to go, but I think I finally know the way.

Is it working for me today, this personal disease management strategy? From the perspective of feeling better, most assuredly: My life is pretty joyful and happy these days. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my life, so I’m sheltered from many of the worst stressors and effects of civilization disease.

But while I’ve been free from serious depression for a couple of years now, I’m really not doing much in any of the strategy areas above. I’m constantly exhausted and uninspired to do much of anything, despite my high level of health and fitness. I spend much of my post-paid-work life distracting myself — video games, masturbation, consuming clever and amusing but ultimately inconsequential and unactionable articles and videos. I think it would be a stretch to say these are ‘fun’ activities to which my exhausted self is entitled after a lifetime of mostly useless paid work — they’re more compulsive and self-indulgent than joyful, and pretty devoid of useful learning. They’re not really play. And in the meantime, the actions in my strategy, which could make me a more useful, informed, well-balanced,  and purposeful person, remain largely un-begun (I’ve given up on the folly of ‘self-improvement’ or ‘personal growth’ as something to aspire to, and the strategies above have no intention to make me other than who I really already am, under this gunk that civilization culture has caused me to cover myself in).

But intuitively I believe I am on the right track, for me. As James Taylor said, sometimes it’s enough to be on your way. I hope you’re coping well, in your own way, with civilization disease’s effect on you and those you love. It’s all about healing, while knowing that in this mad world we cannot ever really be well. Perhaps we’ll meet, some time, in this joyful pessimist’s part of the cage.

It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine.

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12 Responses to Too Many Rats in the Cage: Civilization Disease

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  2. Deskpoet says:

    Thank you for sharing that. It brought a bit of light into my day.

  3. Philip says:

    Dave, you have provided more insights into the correct management of despair. As usual I have to mention my kids and add it to the mix. For the sake of my kids I cannot feel any extended depression. It lurks but joy has to steal the day. It is still in many ways a beautiful world. It’s ironic the cage we are in can give us the luxury of time to feel such pain. It is a hard challenge to de-school the young while schooling them for a sick civilisation at the same time. Einstein said a problem needed a solution at a level above where the problem was created. The disease will be eased and soon- on a level outside of our creation. I always appreciate your efforts to make “something good” out of the human animal while having the wisdom to look into the black hole. You are honest about the contradictions within you….where as most have no words for their inner conflicts. Again; You might not be able to save the world but you are trying to save something. Cheers – Philip

  4. A most excellent summary, Dave. I get the impression that most of the people I meet who are in “this” place would resonate with a lot of what you say. Though my outlook differs from yours in its details, your list of six strategies describes my own approach to these times very well. It’s hard work, but as the saying goes, the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully.

    The one thing that did more for my equilibrium than anything else was fully connecting in love with a woman who sees the world almost (but not quite) exactly as I do. I think the human spirit flies highest on two wings – awareness and love. With those and a beating heart, the world can go to hopeless hell in a handbasket and things will be just fine.

    Paul

  5. Poor Richard says:

    Did humans develop agriculture because other sources of food ran out? Or was civilization the unintended consequence of our taste for beer, not bread? Beer: The Midwife of Civilization http://beeradvocate.com/articles/673

    I’m not letting chaos, complexity, or absurdity get me down, David. There are a dozen natural ways the world could end tomorrow that don’t even depend on human insanity.

    What keeps me going is not my agency, its my curiosity.

    Cheers, Richard

  6. Mike Sliwa says:

    I’ve read a great deal over the past five years concerning the dilemma of civilization. This essay is one of the very best. Thank you.

    Mike Sliwa

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  8. Nicely presented, thoughtful. Thank you very much.

  9. Pro. Huff says:

    I feel depression is linked to a few key things;

    – Misunderstood awareness of the world — modern civilisation is just the icing on top of cake, perhaps it’s not good for us, who knows, I think it is, regardless, the world is full of natural beauty and experience that isn’t going anywhere, life is a gift and we are fundamentally adaptable anyway.
    – A rumination on negative issues — lighten up and lead a balanced life, because balance is not only key but critical from time to time.
    – Self-blame — it’s a battle, mainstream culture fuels potentially overwhelming propaganda. social consciousness overcomes this, but unbalanced life may undermine it.
    – Pessimistic expectation — Don’t expect, there is only ever now. Not to say plans can’t be made, but lose your expectations, they’re never accurate when complexity is involved and can be self-fulfilling to a lesser outcome.

    And so the solutions lay outside of the box/cage, outside of social norm. Destined to be criticised in a superficial and nonsensical manner by those who have not yet attained a true consciousness of their own cultural framework, but cheered on more passionately by like-minded souls. To think outside of the box the very first thing you have to do is to; identify the box, know there is one, see what it is, see what kind of function it performs, what purpose does it serve and finally to have the will to think outside the box that is designed by your oppressors – the invisible hand that has you oppressed and oppressing all around you.

    We are indoctrinated to focus indefinitely on the future. But we need to seize the opportunities of now – including a redress of our grievances that leave us in constant frustration and on probation. Economic democracy may bring about the spiritual transformation we’re needlessly waiting for.

  10. Tim says:

    Thanks, Dave. Good stuff here. I found the end especially fascinating. After proposing a model of a “way of living,” you then go on to say that you’re not really following it, and that you are both more joyful and more exhausted/uninspired. There’s something about that that really resonates. I keep encountering all sorts of plans and recommendations regarding depression, malaise, ennui, anxiety, and “how to cope” with the emotional/psychological/and spiritual dimensions of collapse/extinction/etc. The thing is, I find that these plans and recommendations feel “off” to me in some deep way I cannot yet explain, and don’t really interest me. Not sure what to say beyond that, as I have no real clarity about why it is these things feel “off” to me. I’m just popping in to say that I’m not really applying myself to any plan or way of life beyond just saying what’s true for me and feeling my feelings as fully as I can, and that I, too, while often tired, lost, confused, uninspired, or any of a variety of other emotional states, also have more joy and engagement in my life than ever.

    Here’s to that, my friend. Keep on, and so will I… Pax. Tim

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