Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: 1. China pollution — Damir Sagoli for Reuters; 2. Trump stormtroopers in Portland — Noah Berger for AP: 3. Garbage-pickers in Lagos — Samantha Appleton, in The New Yorker; 4. Refugees in Greece — Daniel Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine: 5. Child labourers in Pennsylvania — Lewis Hine in the National Archives
A while back, Tema Okun published (and continues to curate) a fascinating list of the qualities of a White Supremacist Culture. When I read it, I realized that she was at the same time identifying the characteristics of an unhealthy culture.
If you study past collapsed cultures, they had many of these attributes. Drawing on Tema’s list, here’s my list of the qualities of an unhealthy culture headed for inevitable collapse:
- chronic and pervasive physical and emotional stress and anxiety
- widespread malnutrition (notably in ‘affluent’ nations), chronic and pervasive physical and emotional illness, and lack of resilience and fitness
- prevalence of casteism — control and hoarding of wealth and power by a patriarchy, hierarchy, oligarchy or other unrepresentative, privileged, ‘qualified’, ‘exclusive’ group disconnected from and not responsive or responsible to the rest
- widespread use of fear to oppress and suppress people and ideas
- prevalence of exceptionalism, arrogance, and failure to appreciate the lessons of history
- large-scale infighting and divisiveness among and between groups
- extreme disconnection from the land and the more-than-human world
- rabid individualism — belief that our success or failure is up to us, not dependent on others, and that the individual, not the community, bears ultimate responsibility
- a mentality of scarcity, and creating scarcity artificially through inequality to enforce obedience
- prevalence of simplistic, absolutist, binary, “one-right-way” thinking
- high level of change resistance, and nostalgia for what never was
- belief that more is always better, and growth is always good, regardless of cost
- intolerance for conflicting or uncomfortable ideas and beliefs
- perfectionism — criticizing rather than learning from mistakes, averseness to risk-taking, experimentation and innovation in favour of conservatism and incrementalism
- predominant short-termism, prioritizing the urgent, and never allowing time for reflection, listening and true dialogue before decision-making
- defensiveness and/or denial of the truth in the face of a compelling preponderance of evidence
- a competitive, adversarial zero-sum game mentality rather than one of collaboration and sharing
- lack of coherent values — a preoccupation with what is easily measurable over what is actually important
- lack of a cohesive, articulate and inclusive story of the culture, employing instead an ideology, a false myth, or an antagonism (what the culture is against rather than what it is for)
- rampant and unrealistic future-oriented idealism (eg about space travel, perpetual life, techno-utopias, ‘perfect’ markets, or infinite growth)
- endless civil, cultural, genocidal, resource- and land-driven wars
- reliance on propaganda, censorship, and disinformation to suppress civil disobedience
Looking at our current civilization culture, the diagnosis would appear to be grim.
How did we get to this stage? My sense is that our collective conditioning over the past few millennia has inevitably led to this, the result of billions of people doing their best to make things better for themselves and those they love. We can rant and rave all we want about all of these emergent, unhealthy qualities of our civilization, but it’s sheer hubris to think we can ‘reform’ it.
This hasn’t happened because we were stupid, or evil, or allowed evil people to come into power. The human experiment on this planet has been a fascinating one, but we didn’t do anything wrong. The way it, and we, have evolved couldn’t have taken any other course. All systems, and all civilizations, do and must eventually crash, despite what those espousing the myth of progress would like us to believe.
This — the way we live now — isn’t how humans, or any creatures, are meant to live. When I say ‘meant’ I’m referring to how we are biologically made up. Like our cousins the bonobos, we emerged as a species suited to a slow, peaceful, low-stress, uncrowded existence. For whatever reason, probably involuntarily, we migrated to very different, hostile environments, and used our large mental capacity to try to control and manage in these new environments. But the systems we created to do this controlling and managing were maladaptive and unnatural, and they have been continually and inevitably coming apart since we created them. And now, as David Ehrenfeld predicted, they are collapsing on a massive scale.
These systems, and this civilization culture, no longer serve us. We are right to be fearful of the struggle and hardship that collapse is already starting to impose on many of us, but we should not mourn this culture’s collapse.
We cannot know whether there will be any human survivors as this collapse accelerates through the rest of the century. But just as our species’ emergence came about as an accident — the aftermath of the fifth great extinction 65 million years ago — we cannot even guess what will emerge from the current sixth great extinction, the one our species, in its ‘wisdom’, unleashed a mere blink in time ago. All we can know is that, if future cultures have many of the characteristics of the list above, nature will not allow them to continue for long.
Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for pointing me to Tema’s site.