bonobo mother and child; from wikimedia by Nick Hobgood, CC-BY-SA 3.0
The more I learn about how wild creatures live (in the absence of severe encroachment by human populations), the more convinced I become that our species was never meant to live the way almost all of us do now.
In the natural world, populations evolve to fit comfortably into the ecological niches they emerged in, to accept and adapt to changes in their environment, and to self-regulate their numbers or migrate elsewhere when life becomes the slightest bit difficult. That just makes sense — why would any creature deliberately choose to live in, and raise offspring in, a situation of chronic precarity, stress, and scarcity, when the option of ceasing to procreate, and of moving to a less inhospitable environment, is always available?
Natural evolution has succeeded for 4+ billion years because it works brilliantly — both for the creatures that live in each niche, and for the ecosystems, land, water and air, of which they are a part. Nature is co-evolutionary. (Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, and short”, often misrepresented as referring to the lives of wild creatures, actually referred to human lives in the absence of strong central governments.)
So what went wrong with our species?
In his book Rogue Primate, naturalist John Livingston argued that we ‘civilized’ humans have, with the best of intentions, domesticated ourselves. Domesticated creatures, he said, are by definition totally dependent on a prosthetic, disconnected, surrogate mode of approaching and apprehending the world, to stand in the place of natural, biological, inherent ways of being. Such creatures see the world through this artificial prosthesis, instead of how it really is, and this self-domestication is what we call civilization.
The very word ‘domesticated’ means ‘made property of the house’, and comes from the same root as ‘dominated’.
Why would we have ‘voluntarily’ subjected ourselves to the miseries of domestication, rather than continuing to live wild and free in the forests that were our home for our first million years on earth? Do we believe the only way we can keep all 8B of us under control is through domination, by being ‘made property’ (ie made ‘proper’)?
The only explanation that makes any sense to me, especially after reading The Dawn of Everything, is that we had no choice. There is some compelling evidence that our exodus from living in the trees of the African tropical rainforest, about six million years ago, may have coincided with a massive climate catastrophe in that part of the world, most likely as the result of immense cosmic radiation storms that may have lasted a million years or more, and which burned most of our home habitat to the ground.
But whatever the explanation, it seems entirely plausible to me that we adopted a civilization culture not because it was better suited to us than the wild, free, leisurely way we were already living (or because we “ate from the tree of knowledge”), but because the environments we had to flee to were so strange and harsh that we had to band together in unnaturally large, hierarchical groups to survive there at all. And now, having forgotten the natural ways of being in the world, we have conditioned each other to believe that ‘civilized’ is the only way that humans can now live.
Midjourney’s take on a bonobo evolved to be a factory worker; my own prompt
The question is whether this conditioned belief actually stands up to scrutiny. Much of The Dawn of Everything suggests it does not. Human societies, even in the last ten thousand years, exhibit a remarkable variety of social and political structures and belief systems, many of them not meeting the definition of ‘civilized’ or ‘domesticated’.
I have often argued that the possibilities for the evolution of our species have been constrained by an unfortunate combination of imaginative poverty (stemming from our lack of practice, in our work, play and reflective lives, at imagining things other than the way we’re now so thoroughly conditioned to see them), and an endemic mental illness that I’ve called Civilization Disease. This ‘Disease’ stems, I believe, from the enormous chronic stress and precarity in our unnatural modern lives that has made us unnaturally (and maladaptively) angry, destructive, hateful, fearful, anxious, distrustful, overwhelmed, and grief-stricken, and in the process has disconnected us from seeing our place as an integral and harmonious part of the local ecologies in which we live.
So, sick and bewildered and unable to fathom any other way to live and to be, we behave like rats constantly being shocked in a Pavlovian test — we are incapacitated, terrified, and anxious about when and where the next shock will come. Living in the future, or in the past. We, and our civilized culture, have rendered ourselves completely dysfunctional, and the result is that we have precipitated the accelerating extinction of most (or perhaps all) life on the planet. Not deliberately, but like conditioned rats, through behaviours that cause us to be endlessly and fiercely reactive, or paralyzed into inaction, or both.
So I was quite fascinated to hear some of the thinking of Australian indigenous professor Tyson Yunkaporta, who in this discussion says:
The most important thing we have to do as humans is to reclaim our adaptive capacity as a species. Acceptance and adaptation are central to our human knowledge systems. In any knowledge system that is human, and not ‘domesticated’, acceptance is a part of it…
All you can do is foster the conditions for emergence and allow it to emerge and just behave with integrity, and, you know, maybe others will do the same. But the minute you have an idea and you think this is an important idea, everybody should know about this, everybody should be doing this — as soon as you do that you’ve made an ideology and you’re stuffed [that’s a Britishism for ‘fucked’].
What would it mean for us to abandon ideology, stop trying to impose ‘designed’ solutions to the insoluble predicament of collapse, refuse our self-imposed ‘domestication’, and instead embrace reconnection, acceptance and adaptation as the hallmarks of our action and interaction with the world, and foster the conditions for the (re-)emergence of a viable, joyful, peaceful, and non-destructive way of being in the world?
What would it take for us to accept that the current collapse will likely continue for centuries and even millennia, and to see our role humbly as adapting (and helping other species adapt) to each new situation, and acknowledging that it could well be a hundred generations or more, if our species survives at all, before we can take our place once more as essential and beneficial members of the local ecosystems to which we belong?
Since we have no choice in our behaviours — what we think, believe and do is, IMO, entirely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning given the immediate (and unpredictable) circumstances of each moment — these questions are not asking what should we do. Rather, by asking ‘what would it take’ or ‘what would it mean’, I’m asking what would be the indicators that we were evolving (or not) into a species that ‘fits’ (in the Darwinian sense) where it lives and hence contributes positively to the co-evolution of all life on earth.
This is the perspective of a chronicler of collapse and re-emergence, not that of a reformer or ‘world-saver’ (‘saving the world’ being neither possible nor necessary). Not what should we do, but what would it look like if we were, once again, on the right track?
Here are what I think some possible indicators of ‘being on the right track’ might be, over the coming decades and centuries:
1. The gradual abandonment of centralized systems that don’t work, rather than continuing to exhaust the earth trying to keep them going.
Our current human systems have become dysfunctional and rendered our cities and other human arrangements unliveable, giant Ponzi schemes that require more and more energy to prop them up, while the infrastructure underlying them is crumbling despite the endless investment in ‘growth’. Collapse is forcing us, in more and more places, to abandon our failed ‘developments’ and, excruciatingly slowly (we don’t much like change, we humans), to try out other ways of acting and being in the world.
That means acknowledging that cities, suburbs, industrial agriculture, ‘private’ transportation, centralized governments, the extractive economy, and endless wars simply do not serve us, and, reluctantly and with great difficulty, giving up on them. It will likely take centuries of collapse for us to really get this. But slowly but surely there will be growing indications that none of these well-intentioned but ruinous human inventions work, and they will be abandoned. Collapse will make their dysfunction more obvious, and their abandonment unavoidable. (This is, I think, what Daniel Quinn means when he talks in his books about ‘walking away’ from civilization.)
2. The relearning of the skills and the necessity of sharing and scavenging.
As The Dawn of Everything illustrates, our basic nature is to share and give to each other and to the world. The most respected and listened-to people in most pre-industrial societies were not the richest and most powerful, but those who gave the most to others (experience and learned wisdom as well as material gifts). That cannot be measured in currencies, but I think we’re going to see it more and more as collapse deepens, as an indicator we’re back on the right track.
And we are, in our DNA, a scavenging species, not an apex predator. (We don’t have the speed, fangs or claws needed to be apex predators, and our compensating prosthetics are running out of fuel.) What we are instead is a creature with a big enough brain to figure out how to make the most of what’s readily available. With collapse, much of what we humans now need to survive in any numbers are no longer economically viable to produce, so we’re going to have to scavenge, reuse, and repair or ‘regenerate’ just about everything (including our soils and our water). All at a tiny local scale (large-scale initiatives will soon be seen as obvious non-starters; the cupboard to fund them is bare).
The book The Mushroom at the End of the World is a deep dive into how the sharing/scavenging economy is already starting to emerge in “the capitalist ruins”. We’re going to see more and more signs of it as things continue to fall apart. That economy is emergent, not something that can be designed. And there’s nothing shameful about a scavenging way of living and being — the crows and ravens have shown us that, brilliantly.
3. A closer paying-attention to how we can best ‘fit’ into the world, and ‘belong’ to it, including a rediscovery of what the ‘natural’ world offers us and what we owe to it.
Instead of trying to remould and exploit the planet to meet our desires, we are going to have to ‘re-member’ how to be an integral part of it, how we all ‘fit’ ‘together’. This will mean less time in our heads dreaming up ideas and ideologies to change the world, and more just ‘being a part’ of it. That means, for example, relearning about our local ecologies, and how all of the elements of them work together.
Perhaps the best indicators of when this might start to happen will be the subjects and objects of our labour, our studies, and our conversations. If you look at what most of us are spending most of our time talking about, learning about, and working at today, it would be easy to be discouraged. But as collapse, of necessity, removes these subjects from our attention and this work from our economy, our attention, our interests, and our labours are all likely to shift to areas that help us fit better into the real world, rather than the collapsing prosthetic one we have constructed. And relearning to pay attention to the natural world is the first step to reconnecting with it.
• • • • •
So, my sense is that, over the coming decades, centuries and perhaps millennia (not long in the planet’s scheme of things), we will have no choice but to abandon our prostheses and illusions of control, relearn to live in and pay attention in the world, accept, adapt, share and scavenge furiously, and rediscover how we belong. It won’t be easy. There will, mostly by slow attrition rather than ghastly death, inevitably be a lot fewer humans in the post-collapse world than are living in our artificial, unsustainable world today. And quite possibly there will be no humans at all — we cannot know.
Relearning to adapt, to accept, to behave with integrity (in both senses of the word), to foster the conditions for the emergence of what is later found to have been inevitable, and to reconnect with and be a part of and belong to the rest of life on earth — these are no new things. They’ve been our history, and our destiny, for millions of years.
It’s how we’re meant to live.