Third and final part of a three-part essay. Part One is here. Part Two is here. Bibliography of all sources cited is here.

fig 2
In Part Two I explained what we lost when, thirty thousand years ago, in response to a sudden shortage of big game, we gave up our hunter-gatherer cultures, started the tedious and back-breaking work of agriculture, invented civilization and tried to convince everyone that this strange and unintuitive new society was a good and necessary way to live. Although the ‘history’ we are taught in school starts with the birth of civilization, and treats everything before that as a non-event, books like Daniel’s Quinn’s Ishmael and Story of B, Richard Manning’s Against the Grain, Derrick Jensen’s A Truth Older Than Words and the essays of Jared Diamond have started to develop a credible, broader picture of human history, explaining that the transition of three-million-year-old homo sapiens from hunter-gatherer to farmer-settler was a traumatic one, and led inadvertently to consequences of great suffering and misery and ecological stresses that today imperil the survival of all life on the planet.

This picture looks something like this: We learned that for civilization to work, we had to live closer together, and to work in a coordinated way in new and difficult jobs. To do so we needed to evolve new, abstract, technical languages and create hierarchies of command and control. The crowding, the coercion, and the development of very successful agricultural technologies had three immediate consequences: High levels of physical and emotional stress (nature’s way of signalling and dealing with overcrowding), excess food (which in turn led to exploding population, and even more crowding), and, paradoxically, recurring and catastrophic shortages, as the new monoculture crops occasionally and spectacularly failed. Thus the vicious cycle shown in the chart above began.

With more and more people crammed into civilization’s new ‘cities’, opportunistic diseases that required proximity quickly evolved and blossomed into epidemics. The human forms of poxviruses, nature’s ubiquitous species-specific population regulator, became endemic and killed over a billion of the first few billion humans born into civilization. The crowding and the loss of community and purpose and place led to mental illness, to new physical ailments (like tooth decay and heart disease) connected to the loss of variety in our diet, and to addictions, which are now so common and widespread that we have come to think of them as normal, and only notice them in the descendants of tribal cultures most recently conquered and forced to adapt to civilization’s ways, where their symptoms are most tragic and most obvious. The crowding also produced continuous violence and war, as fighting broke out over increasingly scarce land and resources, and the ethic that had held for three million years that land was sacred, and belonged to the community that was already there, was replaced by an ethic of acquisition, of justifiable genocide of uncivilized cultures, and of manifest destiny to conquer and seize every acre of land to meet civilization’s insatiable needs. Catastrophic crop failures led to famines, previously unknown on the planet, and the ‘fear of not having enough’ caused everyone to try to hoard surpluses, and prompted those higher in the new hierarchies to demand more than their share, and to use their power to establish and preserve a staggering new inequality of health and wealth.

Social order, which for three million years had been egalitarian and instinctive and built around the tribal community, started to break down as the new larger social structures did not work on the same principles. New social principles therefore had to be developed: New religions taught that suffering was normal and divine will; New laws and punishments and prisons were introduced to enforce obedience to the rules set by those at the top of the hierarchy; New educational and moral codes taught that war is honourable and inevitable, that some people deserve more wealth and security than others, and that conformity and other qualities that keep order and discipline are ‘virtues’; The nuclear family unit was conceived to promote patriarchy and hierarchy as the natural human order, and to replace the loss of the tribal community. And all of these new systems portrayed nature as dangerous, brutal, something that had to be conquered and subdued in the interest of man, and portrayed man as divine, above and apart from all other life, so that man was absolved from the guilt, the responsibility and the intuitive distress over destroying nature and enslaving the tribal peoples and animals that got in the way of global dominion by ‘civilized’ man, in his insatiable need for more land, more resources and more slave labour to feed the ever-increasing masses. And man, social, adaptable, gullible creature that he is, bought it all. He learned to forget his true nature, to distrust his instinct, and to believe that civilization, despite its vicious cycle, was the only way to live.

It’s only in the last century that the wisdom of this new civilization ethos has been seriously questioned by more than a few eccentric individuals. This century has seen the worst wars, the worst famines, the worst epidemics, the greatest suffering of any century in civilization’s brief 300-century history, and the lack of progress has started to lead many to a sense that something is terribly wrong. In The Axemaker’s Gift, Burke & Ornstein reveal that human innovativeness, which originally helped man adapt and live better, is now used as a tool to entrench authority and concentrate power. In The Unconscious Civilization John Ralston Saul explains that the political and economic and corporate systems we built to make our lives better have now enslaved us, and are out of our control. In Ockham’s Razor, Wade Rowland argues that civilization has dehumanized humans, and that science and technology have accelerated rather than slowed this process in the last millennium.

In People Before Profit, Charles Derber recounts the cautionary tale of the 18th century robber barons and warns that corporatism is once again driving much human activity, in ways that benefit only a tiny elite and impoverish all other life on Earth. In When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten shows how corporations, which we invented to try to improve the production and distribution of resources, have lost sight of their purpose and now control us, while producing ever-greater inequality of wealth. The Worldwatch Institute, in its annual State of the World reports, dispassionately identify the measures of growing ecological collapse. And in The New Rulers of the World, Jon Pilger shows how much control now resides in a tiny number of people — fewer than a million — with a vested interest in perpetuating the vicious cycle above.

Richard Manning’s Against the Grain explains how grain surpluses were the first human currency, used to bribe some people into beating down others to establish the first human hierarchies, and describes the incredible vulnerability of monoculture agriculture to catastrophic failures that has led to soul-destroying famines, wars, unimaginable suffering, and even cannibalism — and ultimately to the political systems that perpetrate these disasters and lead to overpopulation, modern concentration-camp style factory farms, and staggering inequality of power and wealth.

As these and other authors paint a disturbing picture of civilization’s well-intentioned social, political and economic folly, other writers describe civilization’s devastating impact on our psyches. Edward Hall, in The Hidden Dimension, explains the psychological impact of overcrowding as a natural stress reaction common to all animal species. The purpose of this reaction is to induce in creatures that have overpopulated a series of hormonal changes that reduce fertility, increase aggressiveness (to spread them out), and increase susceptibility to disease, and hence quickly bring the population back into ecological balance, as illustrated in the diagram in Part Two. In rare situations when that fails, the hormonal changes kick up another notch, and a social ‘blow-up’ is produced — aggressiveness to the point of murder, eating of the young, and adrenal shock leading to premature death ensue. Hall argues that this is precisely what we are witnessing in violent, stressful civilized society. Psychologist Glenn Parton goes further, arguing in The Machine in Our Heads that because we have forgotten how we lived for three million years, lost touch with our instincts, we recognize that something is terribly wrong with the world and feel responsible for it, but no longer see the solution, so the stress ultimately drives us insane.

Meanwhile, the vicious cycle continues to spin out of control. The Census Bureau now predicts that there could well be one billion Americans and fourteen billion humans on the planet by the end of this century, but the corporatist-owned major media continue to pander to the modern myths that population is levelling off quickly, that technology and ingenuity will solve all our problems in plenty of time, and that in fact the West needs more babies to support its ageing population.

Agencies like NOAA and NASA, and scientists like Bill McKibbon (The Overheating World), David Stipp (Climate Collapse) and Kenny Ausubel (The Empire Strikes Out) provide growing evidence that human overpopulation, overdevelopment and overconsumption are not only wiping out most species of life on the planet, but precipitating potentially catastrophic climate change as well. And the creatures that are left, argues JM Coetzee in Elizabeth Costello, are being subjected to cruelty of holocaust proportions.

It is not surprising, in the face of the enormous stresses of civilized life, the incredible unease and guilt we feel about the extinction of all other creatures on the planet, the staggering violence, cruelty and suffering endemic in the culture we created and which is now seemingly out of our control, that we should seek refuge in denial — denial that Earth is in crisis, denial that the atrocities and suffering are actually occurring, denial that it going to get worse rather than miraculously better thanks to human ingenuity or divine intervention, denial that it is our human responsibility to do anything about it, denial that we can do anything about it, and denial that we have any personal responsibility beyond just doing our best not to contribute to the crisis. And if we’re smart enough and informed enough and sensitive enough to be unable to deny this grim reality, we take refuge from the hopelessness and from our helplessness instead by turning it off, by busying ourselves with simpler, more personal, more manageable things. And if we can’t do that either we end our own lives. Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

So what are we to do? Some of the writers cited above offer no solutions — they are merely diagnosticians, they say, it is not their place to tell us what to do. Some writers do proffer answers, that range from the modest to the radical to the resigned. Here are some of them:

The late Freeman Dyson, in his famous Wired interview, suggests we need to rediscover community and focus our attention on it, since that’s the political level at which we can have a personal impact. Along with that, he says, we need to quickly advance new technologies that (like solar energy co-ops) increase community self-sufficiency and (like biotech innovations) improve quality of life. Economist Herman Daly, in Developing Ideas, proposes an economic and tax program that would help communities flourish and encourage conservation and the protection of the commons, and proposes a global contract in which developed nations would agree to reduce their levels of consumption while in return the developing nations would agree to reduce their levels of population.

Just in the last year, Jon Schell in The Unconquerable World has proposed a new political system built around non-violence and consensus-building, while Shoshana Zuboff in The Support Economy has proposed a new post-capitalist economic system based on small enterprises collaborating to meet human needs holistically. Thom Hartmann in Unequal Protection, David Korten in When Corporations Rule the World and Joel Bakan in The Corporation present prescriptions for stripping corporations of their power and perhaps returning that power to local communities. Jim Merkel in Radical Simplicity prescribes a way that each of us can strive to reduce our personal footprint to sustainable levels.

Thomas King in The Truth About Stories and Thomas Berry in Dream of the Earth both say we need to write a new story about a new human culture, that the rest of us can embrace, and which will show us the way forward. Meanwhile, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point teaches us how change occurs and can be brought about quickly, and Peter Singer in Ten Ways to Make a Difference and the late Dana Meadows in Places to Intervene in a System offer pragmatic advice about how to bring change about. Stuart Koffman in At Home in the Universe explains how we can exploit the attributes of self-managing systems to help humans evolve at the community level.

While Margaret Mead tells us that most of the major changes in human society and culture have been wrought by a few, caring people, James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds persuades us of the importance and value of tapping into the collective wisdom of large numbers of people who, together, probably have the answer to every problem, even one as intractable as the crisis that faces us today. And Bill McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Avery Lovins in Natural Capitalism show proven ways that could be used to redesign the world by learning from nature.

Bucky Fuller reminds us that it is much easier to create a new system that renders the old one obsolete than to try to reform an existing system. There is even a school of thought that proposes a human cultural metamorphosis, explained by Elisabet Sahtouris in EarthDance and Gary Alexander in eGaia, by which transformation to a new human culture might be achieved quickly. Glenn Parton in Humans in the Wilderness suggests a grand experiment of spaced-out Intentional Communities, to reintroduce humans to community and wilderness, and provide a model for building a new natural culture.

So there are many suggested solutions, none of which has achieved any great groundswell of support. They are of four main types:

  • innovative (brought about through invention of new technologies),
  • social/educational (brought about by virally changing a lot of people’s minds),
  • commercial/entrepreneurial (brought about by changing the rules by which the economy operates) and
  • political (brought about by changing laws and regulations).

If there is any consensus of these writers, it is that innovation is the easiest way to bring about change ( because it requires no widespread public agreement to occur) and political reform is the hardest (because the political system was set up to institute the changes needed to make civilization ‘work’ and its very purpose is to defend the status quo).

My answer continues to evolve the more I read, and I’m much less convinced that it’s the right answer than I am of the Truth about Nature and the Truth about Civilization. But for those that are interested, here is my answer, as of today:

  1. There are a lot of things that everyone can do, and should do, to make the world better. Here’s my latest list of 15 things: Trust your instincts; Listen, learn and teach others; Learn and practice critical thinking; Re-learn how to imagine; Use less stuff; Stop at one child; Become less dependent; Become an activist; Volunteer; Be a role model; Be a pioneer; Find or create a meaningful job; Share your expertise; Be good to yourself; and Infect others with your courage and spirit and passion. It’s the least we can do. It’s necessary that we do these things to be clearer about what else we need to do, because these things by themselves won’t be enough.
  2. There is a second group of things that we need to work on that will require specialized expertise and talent:
    • Innovators and scientists need to work on simpler, cheaper, more reliable birth control, abortion and assisted-suicide technologies, breakthroughs in clean energy technology, and technologies that: reduce pollution and waste; prevent rather than just treat diseases; reduce the need for transportation; enable community self-sufficiency (e.g. solar/wind energy co-ops, indoor gardening); do more with less; replace molecules with bits; conserve energy and resources; create nutritious and delicious animal-product-free food; reduce the need for agricultural chemicals; enhance the ability of activists and problem-solvers to organize, collaborate virtually and share information; help identify socially and environmentally irresponsible people and corporations; prevent and treat mental illness; and enable us to better communicate with and learn from other animals.
    • Social activists and teachers need to develop a new non-corporatist, autonomous community-based education system that teaches responsible citizenship, how to learn, how to think creatively and critically, how to get along with others, and how to start and run your own responsible business; they need to persuade people to stop at one child, adopt a vegan diet, buy local and live simpler lives; and they need to teach appreciation of and skills in: community-building, achieving consensus, using citizen-power, effective listening, peaceful conflict resolution; and they need to teach us all how to cope with terrible knowledge, responsibility and change.
    • Entrepreneurs need to demonstrate and teach community-based Natural Enterprise, and pledge to buy local.
    • Politicians and lawyers (I’m not holding my breath on this) need to revamp corporate charters to refocus corporations on responsibility to community, end business subsidies, reform election and campaign finance laws, shift taxes from goods (employment) to bads (pollution, waste, non-renewable resource use), replace GDP with a genuine progress indicator, restrict property ownership, protect and expand the commons and wilderness, make health and education universal rights, shift spending from defense to humanitarian activities, forgive third-world debts, reduce extraterritoriality (power of companies and nations over the affairs of other sovereign nations), reinstate usury laws, introduce currency reform and LETS systems, and extend anti-cruelty laws.
  3. We need to quickly reduce human population on Earth to a sustainable level of no more than one billion. Attempting to make any solution work in a world so horrendously overpopulated is futile and insane. If technology improvements, education and peer pressure can achieve this quickly and voluntarily, that would be the best answer. Political pressure to do so has repeatedly failed, and won’t work. If the voluntary methods won’t work quickly, we need to find another way, painless and non-discriminatory and non-political.
  4. The next culture, everyone seems to agree, needs to be built around communities. We need to create some Model Intentional Communities, a lot of them, to re-learn how communities work, and how to create them, and to show our young people a better way to live (preaching to them won’t work). Quinn’s idea of just ‘walking away’ from our civilization culture is a good one, but we need something to walk away to, and MICs might be the answer, the building block of the next, sustainable culture.
  5. Saving the world is going to require some self-sacrifice and some risk-taking. We need to bring together a lot of bright minds in a lot of different ways to start focusing on this one big problem, instead of the immediate little problems civilization keeps throwing in front of us. We need to diagnose and cure the disease, and that means some of us need to stop being preoccupied with treating the symptoms. I believe that process needs to be voluntary, and the problem-solving groups need to be self-selecting and self-managed. And we need to solve the problem holistically — a vicious cycle can’t be changed merely by tinkering with its isolated parts. That means we need a combination of big-picture thinkers and innovators, and specialists who can expose the big-thinkers’ ideas to real-world reality tests. Think-tanks, conferences, ad hoc organizations — we need them all, and lots of them. If we’re going to fix this, many people will have to decide to make this their calling, their purpose for living, at considerable personal sacrifice, and they’ll have to find, and work with, like minds.
  6. My sense is that the answers, if there are any, are innovations and technologies that can change our culture as broadly and abruptly as the invention of the arrowheads, agriculture, science and automation did. They won’t be the result of linear thinking, and will probably be far more revolutionary than any of the technologies I call for in point 2 above. As Einstein said, We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
  7. We don’t have much time. We are already starting to see the early signs of total ecological and social collapse, and although this collapse is unlikely to reach a head in our lifetimes (it could take as long as another century), we may already be too late to begin to prevent it. I believe the signal for the beginning of the end will be more conventional than natural disasters caused by global warming — it is more likely to be a nuclear or biological holocaust caused by two warring, suffering, nothing-left-to-lose nations, or by a stateless group of desperate malcontents who have the motive, and probably the method, and are only now waiting for the opportunity to say fuck you all. There is no time to lose, or to debate whether anything needs to be done. Something needs to be done, now.
  8. We can’t go back. Returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is neither possible nor desirable. We need to go forward to build a new culture that understands and learns from the truth about nature, and is sustainable, but which also uses the best innovations and technologies that human ingenuity has and will come up with, so that a billion of us can live lightly on the Earth, comfortably, easily, connected, in balance with and as part of nature. Innovation can allow us to do more with less, to eat well without farming animals or catastrophic agriculture, to specialize in what we do best and love doing most, with people we love to live and work with. But that innovation and those technologies must also respect the truth about nature, which means we’ll need to reinvent them to work without non-renewable resources, and so that they can be produced with no pollution and no waste. Just because many current technologies use non-sustainable processes and non-renewable materials, exploit slave labour, are produced by a demeaning hierarchical and irresponsible corporatist economy and produce mountains of toxic garbage doesn’t mean all technologies must do so. Just as civilization isn’t the only viable human culture, today’s wasteful and destructive economy isn’t the only viable economy. They’re the only life we know, but not the only life possible. We need only imagine something better, and strive to make it so.

My novel, The Only Life We Know, will attempt to take up Thomas King and Thomas Berry’s challenge to write a new story for homo sapiens. It is set two centuries in the future, after eco-catastrophe has occurred or been averted, in an idyllic world where man lives in harmony and balance with nature, in a life of comfort, community, respect, responsibility and astonishing diversity. I’m not a scientist, or a powerful teacher, or a politician, or a great debater, or an entrepreneur, or an organizer. My skills are innovation and writing, so what I can best offer to save the world is an imaginative story of what could be, and hope that it might serve as an inspiration for those with other talents to figure out how to get us there, from the terrible and precarious world in which we live today.

Once the book is done, I’d like to start a think-tank, to make respectable the idea of Saving the World as a full-time job, and help those that are informed enough, and committed enough, and courageous enough, and self-sacrificing enough, to start working together on some bold, revolutionary answers. And I’d like to start a Model Intentional Community, and use it as an opportunity to teach young people about nature and Natural Enterprise and critical thinking and creative thinking and a better way to live. And of course I’ll continue to do the 15 things listed in point 1 above, which have so transformed me in the three short years since I began this belated journey to try to understand my purpose and my sense of dread about the world we live in.

The truth about nature is that she is inside us, all around us, just waiting for us to ask her what to do. The truth about civilization is that it was an honest mistake, an invention that was necessary at the time, a mere 30,000 years ago, when nature appeared to be letting us down and we thought we could do better. But now it has outlived its usefulness, and is out of control, and threatens the survival of all life on our planet, so it’s time to let it go. It’s time to move forward and imagine and invent a new culture, a sustainable one that works for all creatures on Earth, drawing on the best learnings from nature and the best innovations from civilization.

It’s time to go home.

This entry was posted in Collapse Watch. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Derek says:

    Innovations: prevent diseases?Do we really want to expand the human lifespan more at this time? How about we just allow sick people to die with dignity.Social activists,You have a lot of specific opinions, but I think creating a broader focus that more people can buy into and letting each community find its balance, might be better: like focus on respectful living between members of a community and nature.Use less stuff,With oil expected to hit $50/barrel by the end of next week, us gasoline usage reached a new high this week, reducing domestic inventories despite a 6% increase in imports. I really can’t imagine what its going to take to reduce our fossil fuel usage. I think we’re just have to use it up, and then we’ll have to do without. Its not like any other part of the ecosystem depends on it, so suffering will be pretty much limited to humans.identify socially and environmentally irresponsible people,I know at least a dozen. They don’t care–they really don’t. They refuse to believe that the world is straining, and want to have 10 kids, and drive a really big car. The only thing holding them back from complete recklessness is money.

  2. Michael says:

    I just experienced an example of deniual-by-humorous-evasion. I was explaining to someone what Jim Merkel’s book Radical Simplicity is about, specifically the idea of ecological footprinting, when a stranger within earshot intruded into the conversation to point at his feet and say, “That’s how much land it takes for me to live.” Maybe it was just a joke, but it sure felt like his humor negated the need so consider my point. Luckily, the person I was speaking with was interested, and wrote down the title of the book!

  3. Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. says:

    Please find the new, apparently unforeseen and clearly unwelcome scientific data of Russell P. Hopfenberg, Ph.D. According the these data, human population dynamics are common to the population dynamics of other species. In light of this elegant research, unlimited growth of absolute global human population numbers, per capita human consumption worldwide, and the endlessly expanding world human economy could be patently unsustainable and, moreover, could lead to biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and human endangerment. Thank you.

Comments are closed.