Walking Away to the Next Human Culture

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Last month I reported on the first part of Curtis White’s two-part article in Orion, lambasting self-righteous and passive environmentalists, called The Idols of Environmentalism. At that time I included these extracts:

We can, however, look at ourselves and see all of the ways that we conspire against what we imagine to be our own most urgent interests. Perhaps the most powerful way in which we conspire against ourselves is the simple fact that we have jobs. We are willingly part of a world designed for the convenience of what Shakespeare called ‘the visible God’: money. When I say we have jobs, I mean that we find in them our home, our sense of being grounded in the world, grounded in a vast social and economic order. It is a spectacularly complex, even breathtaking, order, and it has two enormous and related problems. First, it seems to be largely responsible for the destruction of the natural world. Second, it has the strong tendency to reduce the human beings inhabiting it to two functions, working and consuming. It tends to hollow us out. It creates a hole in our sense of ourselves and of this country, and it leaves us with few alternatives but to try to fill that hole with money and the things money buys…Needless to say, many people with environmental sympathies will easily agree with what I’ve just said and imagine that in fact they do what they can to resist work and consumption, to resist the world as arranged for the convenience of money. But here again I suspect we are kidding ourselves. Rather than taking the risk of challenging the roles money and work play in all of our lives by actually taking the responsibility for reordering our lives, the most prominent strategy of environmentalists seems to be to give back to nature through the bequests, the annuities, the Working Assets credit cards and long distance telephone schemes, and the socially responsible mutual funds advertised in Sierra and proliferating across the environmental movement. Such giving may make us feel better, but it will never be enough… We’re willing to be generous in order to ‘save the world’ but not before we’ve insured our own survival in the reigning system…

Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems. We are even further from knowing how to take the collective risk of leaving this system entirely and ordering our societies differently. We are not ready. Not yet, at least.

Now Orion has posted the second part of the article, entitled The Ecology of Work. White is so eloquent that, rather than try to paraphrase, I wanted to tease you to read the full article (and to subscribe to Orion) with these additional extracts (emphases mine):

I don’t believe that capitalism can become green, simply because the imperatives of environmentalism are not part of its way of reasoningÖ Ever the optimistic gambler with other people’s money, the capitalist is willing to wager that, while there may be costs to pay, he won’t have to pay them. Animals, plants, [future generations], impoverished people near and far may have to pay, but he bets that he won’t. If called upon to defend his actions, he will of course argue that he has a constitutionally protected right to property and the pursuit of his own happiness. This is his “freedom.” At that point, we have the unfortunate habit of shutting up when we ought to reply, “Yes, but yours is a freedom without conscience.”[And so the world of nature is externalized in our minds to become merely] a place to go for a weekend hike before returning to the unrelenting ugliness, hostility, sterility, and spiritual bankruptcy that is the suburb, the strip mall, the office building, and the freeway (our “national automobile slum,” as James Howard Kunstler puts it).

The violence that we know as environmental destruction is possible only because of a complex economic, administrative, and social machinery through which people are separated from responsibility for their misdeeds. We say, “I was only doing my job”Ö It is only possible to conclude from our behavior for the last two hundred years that ours is not a human society; that it is a society outside of the human in some terrible sense…The kind of work provided by capitalism [is] alienating. That is, it [has] made us something other than what we are. It [has] dehumanized usÖ We all have our place, our “job,” and it is an ever less human place.

We have two options: First, we can simply wait for the catastrophic failure of global capitalism as a functioning economic systemÖ[Or] we can start providing for a different world of work now, before the catastrophe. We need to insist on work that is not destructive…[This requires] leaving a culture based on the idea of success as the accumulation of wealth-as-money. In its place we need a culture that understands success as lifeÖ Most of us want to believe that our quarrel is just with [a few] rogue corporationsÖand not with capitalism as such. But thinking this is simply a form of lying. We deny what we can plainly see because to acknowledge it would require the fundamental reshaping of our entire way of living, and that is (not unreasonably) frightening for most people.

The risk I propose is simply a return to our nobility. We should refuse to be mere functions of a system that we cannot in good conscience defend. And we should insist on a recognition of the mystery, the miracle, and the dignity of things, from frogs to forests, simply because they are. [This] would entail a refusal to play through to the bloody end the social and economic roles into which we happen to have been born. What lies beyond the environmental movement is not only the overcoming of capitalism but self-overcomingÖThe deeper problem is our own integration into an order of work that makes us inhuman and thus tolerant of what is nothing less than demonic, the destruction of our own world.

White is telling us we must do what Daniel Quinn has been telling us to do for a decade: walk away from civilization culture. He acknowledges how frightening the prospect of doing this is. He acknowledges that instinctively we know that this is what we must do. And he acknowledges that what I have called Let-Self-Change is the first, hardest step. It requires that we let go of the only life we know, to pursue, as a matter of intuition and faith, a better way of living, one that, for now, we know nothing about, that we are not equipped for, and which could, in the short run, cause us and our loved ones considerable hardship. We will be like the pioneers first landing on a new continent, except, unlike them, we in our overcrowded world will have to do that pioneering right in the midst of the culture we are walking away from, and liberate the land and ourselves from that culture. And we will have to do it with almost none of the self-sufficiency skills that previous pioneers had.

We will be looking (we are already looking) for leaders who can show us the way. We will look in vain until it is too late, until our culture collapses and we have no choice but to try to create a new one in its ruins, when we will have no resources or time left to do so and when all our energy will be expended just trying to stay alive. We’ll be carried along on the long right tail of all civilizations in their slow, final slide into oblivion.

Though there are no leaders to follow, there is a model on which we could, together with other brave new pioneers, create a new culture, now. It is the model by which every non-human creature on the planet lives, if we only cared enough and paid close enough attention to see it. It is a model where land and the rest of nature and all-life-on-Earth are treated with respect. It is a model of abundance, not scarcity, of living in balance, not in conflict. It is a model of joy, not suffering. It is a model of partnership, not hierarchy. It is a model of caring for, not competing with, each other. It is a model of responsibility, not exploitation. It is a model of steady-state slow evolution, not rapid growth. It is a model of community, not empire. It is a model of well-being and self-sufficiency. It is a model of constant learning and adaptation. It is a model of love and of peace. It is a model where we are always home, and never homeless. It is a model that exists and thrives all around us, in the midst of our culture, yet is not a part of it, is free from it, untouched by it, indifferent to it.

If we learn, quickly and soon, to listen, to imagine, to pay attention, at least some of us might, in community, find the courage (and courage is really just not having any other conceivable choice) to walk away, to live lightly and freely and joyfully, to join our fellow creatures in another, thriving, healthy culture in the midst of our terrible, struggling one. The answer is right in front of us, and our patient, furred and feathered fellow citizens of Earth are calling us, waiting to welcome us home.

I will be writing another article on how we might do this, soon. In the meantime, help me imagine how such a Next Culture, much more radical (in the true sense of the word) than anything White or Quinn has envisioned, might emerge right in the midst of dying civilization culture. What if we just opted out of civilization’s economic and political systems, like the Anasazi and some others who saw their civilizations collapsing did. Renounced citizenship, liquidated all we owned and put it in a shared trust, for emergency use only, by a trustee we could really trust. Refused to recognize ‘ownership’ of land. Commenced a long migration to a land where we could gather natural, healthy food naturally, where we would need no permanent shelter, no heat, no clothing, nothing to buy or own, no place to have to stay. Where we could spread out so that our presence would have a light touch and not oppress the land we occupied. A new triberelearning how to live in balance with the rest of life on Earth.

Can you imagine that?

Category: Let-Self-Change
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16 Responses to Walking Away to the Next Human Culture

  1. Paul says:

    It’s killing me, Dave! “the environment” “natural” “in balance” – I’m with Quinn whole heartedly when he asserts that it’s impossible to have a sensible conversation when these ideas enter the discussion (http://ishmael.org/Interaction/QandA/Detail.CFM?Record=438). Framing things in this manner merely serves to perpetuate the model which tells us that we are [i]not[/i] at home in the world.::sigh::

  2. Kay Dayss says:

    EXACTLY!!! Well said, Dave! I have finally walked away, and I’m scared but also at peace. We need to learn to hold these opposites and be okay with it, and the only way to learn it is to do it.The Universe will show us the way, but we have to be listening, and it is impossible to listen while submerged in the dominator/corporate/competitive model. This is what Jesus meant when he said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle (a narrow gate designed to keep the camels out) than for a rich man to get into heaven. The gold and the possibility of gold blinds us.It is amazing what little we need when we live at ONE with nature.Blessings to you Dave.

  3. The “Orion” article and your commentary conflate rationalism and scientific understanding with technology and capitalist exploitation. It assumes that because capitalism uses the language of science to justify exploitation of the natural environment, that it is science that is at fault, not an unrealistic economic system. More importantly, the article fails to acknowledge theoretical and practical environmental work that has already been done, and is contiuing right now.We call it Living in Place, or reinhabitory strategies, based on the work of Peter Berg, Ray Dassman, Gary Snyder, Ed Abbey and many others.Living in Place is akin to bioregionalism, that is, living in a place in full knowledge of the biological and geophysical cycles of the bioregion in which we live, and living such that we do not consume resources faster than they are naturally replenished, or produce waste faster than it can be naturally dispersed.Living in Place is based on a scientific understanding of our bioregion, that is, based on observation and testing. It does not rely on spiritualism, supernatural beings, nonphysical reality or any other irrational belief about the natural world. The problem with belief is that it is subject to change at a whim, unlike science, which relies on observation and verification. Reality is what hangs around when we stop believing in it.We can no more walk away from civilzation, than we can shed our skin. Our civlization is more a part of us than our personal identity; it transcends the individual. Our culture is what teaches us how to be a human being, and it is culture that persists in telling us dysfunctional stories about how to live in a world of finite resources.In order to change our relationships to the natural world, we must change the stories our culture tells us about how to be a human being.This is the work of reinhabitory strategies. This is how we relearn how to Live in Place.Michael LewisLeona GulchPacific Place

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Paul: Thanks for pointing me to this. I’m a huge fan of Quinn, but I’m appalled at the arrogance in his response to this question, and also in the utter crap in the ‘straw man’ (straw woman actually) samples on the site from his new book. He gets preoccupied with semantic arguments with the reader and fails to address the question (admittedly, poorly worded) that the reader posed. This is a terrible shame — like a lot of very bright thinkers he’s starting to get a bit too full of himself. His argument that he ascribes to himself a rare gift for getting above subjective ‘frames of reference’ that bedevil the rest of us is inappropriately immodest, and insulting to his readers. What is it about fame that corrupts us so easily? Sorry, that’s an ‘ad hominem’ aimed at Quinn that doesn’t address your point. I fully agree that we cannot view the environment and nature as ‘apart’ from us, but that doesn’t undermine my argument (and White’s, and for that matter Quinn’s in his earlier books) that we would be wise to live in harmony and in balance with the rest of life on Earth. It may be perfectly ‘natural’ for a single species to so alter the Earth that it precipitates the Sixth Great Extinction and ultimately threatens the existence of that single species as well, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s unhealthy and unsustainable. That is what the poor questioner in your link was really asking — about creating a community that is healthier (for everyone) and more sustainable. And Quinn doesn’t answer it, because for some reason he prefers to pick holes in the way the questioner phrased it. I’m shaking my head.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Michael: You should probably know (from my writings) that I’m about as far from spiritualism and supernaturalism as you can get. I have no argument with science until and unless it leads us to believe that through science (and its handmaiden technology) we can offset or reverse the damage that we are doing to this world. But I have no quibble with science per se, and I agree absolutely with your arguments on the need for relearning bioregional ways of living (not at all inconsistent with what I’m saying in this article, I think) and on the value of stories as a means of communicating and learning what we need to make the world a better place. We all agree, I think, that it is the political and economic systems that support our dysfunctional culture that must change. If we have a disagreement it is probably whether or not such change is possible by working ‘within’ those systems. as I’ve argued in other articles, I believe it is not.

  6. Bharat says:

    Hey Dave, thank you for challenging and thought provoking article. Speaking of global capitalism, i was sick to my stomach yesterday when i read the following article on a local business paper:http://www.business-standard.com/economy/storypage.php?leftnm=3&subLeft=1&chklogin=N&autono=282549&tab=rIt’s about India exporting mangoes to the US. Imagine the amount of energywasted in having to transport a mango from an Indian village all the way toan american dining table ! Icing on the cake for this deal is that apparently India government relaxed “emissions and testing norms” forimporting Harley Davidson bikes ! There you go — “comparative advantage”as taught in Econ 101 textbooks.However, i wonder if the “capitalism” as a system is a problem, or the people who are unable to make effective decisions to get the system to workbetter. After all, there are pretty neat solutions within the system tostart tackling some of the problems. It’s the people who are unable to muster will to take those decisions. Take carbon tax, for example. That might have well called off the mango deal because of excess transport cost. But our society is not even willing to implement solutions like energy tax, within the framework of existing economic order.

  7. Mike says:

    I’m reading the Orion article now. Just please fix the link to the first article, it’s apparently been moved to http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/233

  8. Paul says:

    Dave, Perhaps we place a different value on semantics?

  9. Myke says:

    This is a discussion that is long overdue.As long as organizations and coalitions like Exxon, Monsanto, Wal-Mart, coal burning utilities, China’s manufacturing, Japanese fishing, etc., can profit by hiding or pushing the real costs of their environmental destructiveness into the future, the problems will grow until the systems collapse. Capitalism is dysfunctional when the “commons” gets trashed.

  10. david says:

    This is a very good subject, and pretty much the central subject for me these days. I meditate on it a lot, and think to myself “the connections I have are constantly reattaching themselves, new worries, new reasons to stay entrenched in the machine.” As I welcome a first child into the world, into my family, and am assigned from family more and more reasons to be stable and conservative, I draw plans in my journal to design floating islands of ships, I study becoming a citizen of Damanhur in Italy, I imagine a tribe of people dedicated to living in exquisite harmony with nature, with technology, with reason… And doubt more and more that I will escape this magnetic fate of father hood. However, I have become further and further blessed by chaos, being fired in a job, finding a house where I only drive once a week, then getting a new job, a wife, a child… Being able to walk from home to work, to the hospital to see new child, to the drug store to get medication, to the library, to a market of fresh local food, and to meditate with gurus of extremely high education and reason (http://www.studiophoebepemberhouse.com/)… Things are ok I guess… I also have many local fruit trees growing in my back yard, and a baby bird landed on my arm 4 days ago when I was arriving home with a baby! .

  11. lugon says:

    perhaps we could collect stories of walkawayers?

  12. Dar says:

    Dave wrote: “We will be looking (we are already looking) for leaders who can show us the way. We will look in vain until it is too late, until our culture collapses and we have no choice but to try to create a new one in its ruins, when we will have no resources or time left to do so and when all our energy will be expended just trying to stay alive.”Dear Dave,Perhaps your looking in the wrong places or looking to the wrong people for these leaders. Visit our group, we have been here for over a year, waiting for people like you to come along. We are in the process of “creating a new one” now, because we see no reason to wait until this one is in ruins, many people will need someone/somewhere to look to for guidance & direction. I encourage you and anyone reading this to visit our group and unite/join with us in achieving these most important common causes, the future of the human species, it’s social structure and even it’s very universe. Thanks,DarSovereign Independent Individual Human of the Northeastern area of the North American Continentand Awaken Me! Co-creator

  13. lugon says:

    perhaps we might think of a few examples of trapped people and design a way out for eachmaybe start with those who are already near the doormaybe start with the most numerousmeybe describe, rather than describecan someone do it without their family? if that’s not easy, then we should number singles or childlesscould that be teenagers?just wondering

  14. Michael Labhard says:

    I agree that the current culture must be abandoned. I wish to suggest that the problem with doing this is, as you state, that there is no clear vision for what will follow. Let me suggest a vision. All of the solutions offered above implicitly assume human population growth is controlled. “Living In Place”, “living in balance”, and so on, assumes that we continue to inhabit the Earth in some sense. Everyone seems to agree about the concept of the Environmental Footprint, and the key to sustainability is reducing this footprint. But no one says how far that footprint must be reduced. Clearly the larger the population the smaller must be the footprint in order to maintain a constant, sustainable environmental impact. Hence, as populations grow the footprint must diminish. This implies that the footprint would tend toward zero in the limit of unlimited population growth. But what do you call an Environmental Footprint of zero? I call it “invisible”. I suggest that we must pursue a vision of becoming environmentally invisible. That means we have no impact on the natural world at all. Not that we are in balance. Not that we are in harmony. But that the natural world would be no different whether we are here or not. Technically this is achievable. But psychologically it requires us to give up the idea that we will have any control over nature, and that is something we find it very difficult to do. To become invisible is to loose all of our power, all of our influence. And what is our identity if we have no influence? Even the most committed environmentalists do not seem to be able to go this far.

  15. you asked for ways out. Together with the interest -free Swedish bank JAK we developed an idea called Units of Trust. We asked oursleves if there was anythong that could be done given the sraghtjacket of modern banking. These are investment instruments affordable by most people (1000 EUROS) that provide the basics of living. At the moment the ideas are presented as an Imagestream story on http://porena.blogspot.com/2006/12/units-of-trust.html. We are talking to organisations to explore possibilites to create the investment “back end”

  16. Jon Husband says:

    The violence that we know as environmental destruction is possible only because of a complex economic, administrative, and social machinery through which people are separated from responsibility for their misdeeds. We say, “I was only doing my job”

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