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