Five years ago, at the age of 48, I decided it was time to stop complaining and being depressed about the state of the world, and start doing something about it. I began to read voraciously, an average of two books a week, and gradually put together a picture in my own mind of the current state of the world, how we got here, and what we needed to do about it. In February of last year I started a weblog, in part because I wanted to share what I had learned, and in part to discuss it with others and find out if they felt the same way that I did. At that time I wrote an essay that described my learning journey to that point. Since then, I have read a great deal more, and engaged a lot of very bright and perceptive people in discussion of these issues. I intended to update the essay, but I have come to realize that the sequential story of discovering the unprecedented crisis this world is in today is essentially what the ‘environmental philosophy‘ category of my weblog tells already. What is needed now instead is a recapitulation, much shorter and not necessarily in the order in which I learned it, of what I have learned and what I believe we need to do to stave off ecological catastrophe. That is what this essay is about.
It is my way of ‘signing on’ to the 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity signed by 1600 senior scientists from 71 countries, which stated:
“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
At the root of my environmental philosophy is a growing belief that just having everyone ‘do their best’ to make the world a better place will not be enough. In other words, we need to bring about a dramatic change in our world in this century, a much greater and faster change than any culture can achieve organically. A change this drastic and this sudden has occurred four times before in human history:
- about 30,000 years ago, with the invention of the axe, the flint arrowhead and the spear
- about 10,000 years ago, with the invention of catastrophic agriculture and animal domestication
- during the Renaissance, with the invention of modern science
- during the industrial revolution, with the invention of automation
Each of these revolutionary inventions utterly changed the way humans lived. None of them, I think importantly, came about because of political or social actions or revolutions — they were all (in the broad sense of the term) technology-based. What we need urgently today is another such revolution, every bit as radical as these four. We need to find, and rapidly implement, a better, sustainable way to live.
This essay is organized around ten ‘arguments’. I am not smart enough to be able to distill the entire logic supporting these arguments into this essay, but I will refer the reader to sources that do. The Bibliography at the end of this essay contains the full list of these sources. Some of the books and articles in this Bibliography contradict each other in places. I freely admit to being selective in what I’ve taken from each. I trust my instincts in that selection. My purpose is not to persuade you, dear reader, but merely to show you what persuaded me.
The essay also contains a systems chart of ‘How Nature Works‘ and another of ‘Why Civilization Doesn’t‘. These charts are my attempt to capture the interrelationship of the forces that allowed the world to function as a self-managed system so effectively for millions of years, including the first three million years after the appearance of man, and the forces that have largely replaced these natural forces since the dawn of civilization, driven largely by the changes wrought by the four human revolutions noted above.
Here are the ten Arguments:
The Truth About Nature: What We Have Forgotten
- Man is not Special, not the Crown of Creation, or a Species Apart, but rather a fairly minor evolutionary adaptation to one ordinary branch of the tree of life on Earth. The impact and ‘success’ of this species is no more an indication of greater importance, predestination or divine will than is the impact and success of the mosquito, HIV, bacteria, cancer cells or the Plague.
- Our planet is a single self-managing organism. All life on Earth exists to sustain, nourish and support all other life on Earth. As with a human body or any other organism, that is only possible when each component of the organism does its part, in balance and harmony with the rest. In that sense the Earth is sacred, it demands and earns respect and obedience to its ‘laws’ because that is essential to the survival of all life.
- The Earth is full of sentient, intelligent, communicative, emotional creatures. Most human moralities and religions seem to hold that creatures with these attributes deserve freedom from harrassment, suffering and enslavement, and the right to exist. Therefore much human activity, which deprives all non-humans of these rights and freedoms, is an atrocity no less despicable than human genocide, holocaust, torture and slavery, and must be stopped.
- Small is beautiful, and place gives us identity: The community as the basic political unit and Natural Enterprise as the basic economic unit work best because they can be self-selecting and self-managing, and are extremely adaptive. In nature, the community teaches you what you need to live, it defines you and gives you purpose, it anchors and connects you. And though we are all part of a web, a mosaic, and we all travel, ultimately we have our own place, our ‘home’. If you’re not totally connected with everything and every creature that is part of your place, then it isn’t your place. If you don’t have a place, then you don’t yet really exist. It is your community, your ecosystem, all of it, that is your place — not the isolated, nuclear-family, locked house on ‘private’ property. Larger political units (states) and economic units (corporations) are inherently unwieldy, inflexible and less democratic. Because of their sheer size they are detached, remote, and cannot possibly understand or respond to our needs. Forged from both idealism and cynical greed for power, these abominations serve no useful purpose except to protect us from other large political and economic units (and they do that poorly).
- We learn what we’re shown, not what we’re told. Our senses provide us what we need to learn, to really understand, to be happy. When we live in our minds, we close ourselves off from so much. Formal education is futile. To bring about change we need to show people something that works better, and reconnect them with their senses, their imagination, the Earth.
The Truth About Civilization: The Problem and Its Root Cause
- Civilization was a well-intentioned response to a sudden drastic shortage of human food (possibly arising from overhunting of large game and/or the last ice age). But it was not an instinctive way to live, and needed a lot of artificial constructs and controls to work. Our civilization systematically brainwashes us into staggering cultural homogeneity and imaginative poverty, and to believe ours is the only way to live — that there is no other human way. To do so it must get us to forget or deny the 5 truths above, and teach us these great myths:
We are instinctively responsive to, and responsible for, everything we have control over. In nature that is the immediate community — what goes on outside is not one’s business. But now that we, as a ‘global community’ control the whole world we cannot respond, cannot bear the commensurate responsibility. This conflict between our instincts and reality, along with the stress of overpopulation and separation from nature, has made us all mentally ill. This illness manifests itself in violence and war, hatred, abuse, greed, jealousy, and fear. We are helpless to do what we ‘know’ we must. It is like facing ‘Sophie’s choice’ (being asked by the Gestapo to decide which of your children to spare from the gas chamber) over and over and over. We cannot bear to know, so we turn off, we hide inside, we distract ourselves. It is only when we don’t know, and cannot even imagine, that we can go on, and tolerate the world we have created. This makes it easier for us to accept the brainwashing that ours is the only way to live, to tolerate the abuses and outrages that weknow are going on behind closed doors, and to accept the arguments of skeptics and apologists and holocaust denyers that it’s not really that bad, or perhaps it’s even good, or at least it’s divine will so it’s beyond our control, there’s nothing we can do about it, we’re not really responsible
As a consequence, we are poised, by the end of this century, to create a world that contains one billion Americans and fourteen billion people, and uses eight Earths worth of resources (at current regeneration rates) just to meet human needs. A world that will, as a direct consequence of this overcrowding and unsustainable consumption, be preoccupied with catastrophic famines, epidemic (new) human diseases, crop failures, cannibalism, crop failures, nuclear and biological wars, water rationing and desertification, economic depression, catastrophic terrorism, cascading weather disasters, and the decline of democracy, constitutional liberalism, and the rule of law. A world, arguably, not worth living in.
- That our instincts are unreliable (what nature ‘tells’ us to do), and logic and morality are infallible (what human codes tell us to do);
- That life is a struggle of ‘good vs. evil’, and that we are inherently weak, selfish and lazy;
- That it’s good to be ‘normal’ and to be like other people, and that we’re all part of society and not ultimately, terribly alone;
- That we must be unconditionally obedient to our ‘superiors’, their hierarchy and their laws, or society and order will collapse;
- That our well-being is appropriately measured by our material possessions and our ability to acquire more;
- That disparity of wealth, health and dignity is necessary and inevitable and that with hard work ‘have-nots’ can become ‘haves’;
- That we must all work long, hard hours at unsatisfying jobs or we will all suffer and starve;
- That humans have an inherent right to all the land and all the resources of Earth (and even beyond);
- That history began with civilization, before which life was short, fearful, nasty and brutish (and in nature and tribal cultures, it still is).
Forward Not Back: The Solution Process
- Solutions are needed that either directly address overpopulation and unsustainable consumption, or address the causes of these problems (see the Why Civilization Doesn’t Work chart). Or, alternatively, we could resign ourselves to the inevitable crash of this horrible world (probably as a result of a new catastrophic disease or nuclear or biological holocaust), and start designing a post-apocalypse world that will allow the survivors to carry on and perhaps learn from our mistakes. Solutions, throughout history, have come in four ‘flavours’: innovative (new technologies), social (changing people’s minds), commercial (changing the economy) and political (changing laws and regulations). Innovations have been, throughout human history, by far the most effective and enduring. Revolutionary change requires radical solutions — solutions that undermine, replace and ultimately destroy existing systems, technologies, ideas and beliefs. But they must represent bold steps forward, not nostalgic steps back to a pre-civilization world that is no longer possible or desirable.
- If we hope to impose change on a world unready and unable to save itself, enough of us must be informed, aware of the consequences of our actions, skeptical, willing and able to learn from nature, fully committed, confident we can do it, passionate in our search for radical solutions and courageous in following through on them.
Next Week: Part Two of this essay will support and elaborate on the first 5 arguments, and show that the answers to today’s problems are right in front of us — we need only relearn what we have forgotten and open ourselves to the truths we can no longer see.
Week of August 16th: Part Three will conclude the essay by establishing the sense of urgency for change, explaining why continuing to do what we are doing now, no matter how valiantly, will only get us where we are currently headed, and prescribe not solutions but a process for those who are ready, caring and courageous to find and then implement creative solutions.
I think I will print out your points and hang them in my studio for everyone to see. Very well done, very succinct and to the point. Maybe a few of the neo-cons who love my woodland environment so much will get the idea…
I don’t have a studio to hang your points in, but I had the same idea of printing them for further contemplation.
Thanks for the encouraging words. The first chapter of my novel-in-progess is entitled “Terrible Knowledge”. What is really terrible, though, are the implications of this knowledge.
“Man is not Special”Most religions arose from the idea that man is “special” and since 95% of the world is religious to some level the idea that “Man is not Special” is a tough hurdle to overcome.”Most human moralities and religions seem to hold that creatures with these attributes deserve freedom from harrassment, suffering and enslavement, and the right to exist.”But why? Why do creatures, or even fellow humans, deserve these freedoms? Nowhere in nature do these sorts of “freedoms” exist. Lions don’t give the Wildebeast on African plains freedom. If you were a Wildebeast and had a pride of Lions stalking you, hunting you down wouldn’t you feel harassed and to some extent enslaved and if they managed to catch you, you certainly would feel a bit of suffering. Forget the wildebeast. Lions will in fact attack and kill rival lions. The real truth about nature is that it is a brutal world out there and only the strongest survive.If you are agruing that because we have ‘moralities and religions’ that we should “know better” then you have just disputed point #1 since, if we have moralities and religion and no other creatures do, then we are in fact “special.””Small is beautiful, and place gives us identity: The community as the basic political unit and Natural Enterprise as the basic economic unit work best because they can be self-selecting and self-managing, and are extremely adaptive. “Afghanistan these days is mostly ruled by a variety of tribal leaders ruling over local “communities” and was for many years prior to the U.S. invading. These tribal areas are probably self-selecting, self managing and very adaptive but I would not go so far as to say that Afghanistan is a better societal model that we should strive for.In point number 6 you argue against civilization but civilization brought us advanced moralities and relgion. The same moralities and religions that you use in point #3. If civilization is bad and only brainwashes us you probably shouldn’t be using it elsewhere to argue your points.”Solutions are needed that either directly address overpopulation and unsustainable consumption, or address the causes of these problems (see the Why Civilization Doesn’t Work chart).”Yeah, we could try to find a solution.”Or, alternatively, we could resign ourselves to the inevitable crash of this horrible world…”Hey, this sounds like nature to me. Population size explosions followed crashes are frequent in nature.
David: (1) I don’t expect unthinking adherents to organized salvationist religions to be part of the solution to our world’s problems. But just as a lot of Roman Catholics don’t buy the church’s outrageous orthodoxy on birth control and feminism, a lot of religious people I know don’t accept that man is special. (2) The right to freedom from harassment, suffering and enslavement does not mean freedom from being eaten by natural predators. In nature that is accepted, part of the balancing of numbers. Nature endows the prey with a hormonal rush that makes their final moments free of suffering and anxiety. The relationship between predators and prey, even in tribal human cultures, is one of reverence. Lions rarely kill other lions unless there is severe overcrowding. And yes, only the strong survive, but that doesn’t mean life is ‘brutal’ — death gives it meaning, and when you’re not being eaten (i.e. most of the time) life is quite serene and easy, free of disease and discomfort, for most animals whose ecosystems haven’t been severely diminished by man. (3) I can’t believe you’re serious describing Afghanistan, a desertified, horrendously overpopulated country that has been ruled by a series of despots, propped up with a billion dollars worth of American and Russian weapons (it still has more military weapons than people) and repeatedly bombed to smithereens, as any kind of a representative model of community. Fact is most of the tribal cultures on Earth have been destroyed by our ‘civilized’ culture, its weapons and diseases and addictions. That’s why I’m calling for some new models, Intentional Communities that take the best of the planet’s ravaged tribal cultures and merge them with the best of new more-with-less technologies. (4) In point #3 I’m not arguing that human moral and religious codes are an advance (in fact I think we were better, and are better, when we trust our intuition) — I’m merely arguing that those who *do* adhere to these moral and religious codes should, to be consistent, abhor and demand an end to the way civilization treats animals. (5) Population crashes are rare in nature, lemming myths notwithstanding. Nature regulates populations in such a way that the horrible suffering that comes with population crashes is almost never necessary. Famine, for example, is strictly a phenomenon of the civilized world and of the ecosystems destroyed by civilization. It was unheard of pre-civilization, as Richard Manning explains in Against the Grain.
I guess I still find the basis for your arguments a little confusing. Maybe it will become clearer in your followup essays. Mostly I don’t understand whether you want man to become more like nature or less like nature.In nature survival of the fittest is the rule of law and the two basic needs of animals are survival and procreation to further the species. Survival consists of two main concepts: Eat but not be eaten. It just happens that humans are far superior to most creatures in all of these areas in large part through the development of civilization. Civilization protects us and feeds us which allows us to procreate with ease. No other species has been able to achieve this success but I will argue that we are where we are because nature allowed us to get to this point.You may argue that we are doing things that no other creature in nature does but I would dispute that. Beavers cut down trees to build their homes. Leaf cutting ants manipulate their environment to farm food. Locusts are know for clearing hundreds of square kilometers of grassland destroying their own habitat in the process resulting in a population crash. It just happens that humans are substantially better at doing these things than other species.I would argue that building ‘Intentional Communities’ and by restricting hunting and gathering we are stepping outside the bounds of nature. What isn’t natural is being able to see the future and being able to see that we are destroying our environment and being able to do something about it. If nature continues we would probably see an “inevitable crash of this horrible world” as you put it and I would argue that without a global community this would be the inevitable outcome. This is because only when we become a global community working together as one for the greater good of humanity will we be able to fix the problems that we are creating because only then will we be able to step above out basic need to be safe, be fed and procreate. It wasn’t a global community that developed nuclear weapons, it was a (large) local one and developed them to better secure their own people so their own people can better feed themselves and procreate (this is nature working). You will probably argue that in the long term it probably made their own people less safe (and you’d be correct) but nature is not about the long term, it is about the ‘now’. Nature and our basic need to be safe, be fed and procreate is what resulted in nuclear weapons being built.You can probably argue that local structures must be part of the solution but I would argue that those local structures must be part of a larger global community and not completely independent communities.
Enslavement can be discribed as a blinding of the self by the learning of language. . .by the learning of “right and wrong” behavior. . .by the belief that one is “an” American, Chinese, Thai etc. . .these are all manifestations of conditioning. . .the consequences of which are Pavlovian. . .where the individual no longer acts but reacts. . .no longer is but thinks he is. . .transcend if you can. . .save yourself. . .awake. . .before you die. . .set your self free from your conditioning. . .see what’s left.