So We Drove On Toward Death: The Casual Madness of Civilization

March 23, 2014 § 19 Comments

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

The Road
Cormac McCarthy

An annual report is about to be released by The Millennium Project which is titled, “State of the Future.” This report examines global problems and their potential solutions. In discussing the report, chief scientist of NASA’s Langley Research Center, Dennis Bushnell, has said that humans need three planets to sustain themselves. I had previously read a statistic which claimed that if all humans on Earth had the lifestyles and consumption habits of the average American, that we would need over five Earths to sustain the global population. That tidbit was more of a warning about the American “way of life,” whereas what Bushnell is saying is a more direct, we are running out of shit right now, sort of statement.

The entire ecosystem is crashing,” says Bushnell. “Essentially, there’s too many of us. We’ve been far too successful as the human animal. People allege we’re short 40-50 percent of a planet now. As the Asians and their billions come up to our living systems, we’re going to need three more planets.

Far too successful? This choice of words, while not surprising, is quite indicative of the logic of the civilized mind and its human-centric bias. Imagine for a moment, you’re a scientist studying a colony of rats living on an island, and that these rats eat so much that they are destroying their habitat. Imagine that these rats have, in their rapacious quest to eat, destroyed the trees and killed many of the other species on the island. Imagine that after running some calculations, you recognize that these rats are going to require not one, but two more islands worth of resources if they are going to survive, and that if they don’t acquire this new resource pool, their population will crash and potentially be wiped out. In writing your assessment of this rat colony, would you choose to describe them as “successful?” I think you might be more likely to use terms like “foolish,” “short-sighted,” “parasitic,” or “suicidal.”

No, modern humans aren’t “far too successful,” as a species. The dominant culture — because not all people live this way — is far too stupid to understand that it is “eating the seed corn” if you will. Not only are the people who live under the dominant culture destroying tomorrow’s resources to get by today, they are by and large too stupid to even enter this possibility into their self analysis. The fact that Bushnell and any of his ilk would with a straight face suggest that what humans need are more planets, as opposed to needing a massive overhaul of how the dominant culture operates, is frightening. The casual madness of this recommendation demonstrates that the overriding belief within the dominant culture is that everything is hunky-dorey; what people within industrial-civilization are doing on a daily basis is absolutely OK. It’s not the activities of global industrial capitalism that are the problem, no, the problem is that God just didn’t start us off with enough stuff!

Machete your way through the brambly facade, and the core premise within this assertion — even though it would seem contradictory based on the data being reported — is that civilization works.

As an anarchist, I have often attempted to persuade people that we do not need police, prisons, armies, politicians, even money or large scale societies. With near ubiquity, the response given to such suggestions is that they would never “work.” Some are not so bold as to claim never, but merely ask, “how would that work,” in a tone that clearly betrays a wall of disbelief. Before defending myself and my supposition, I have to draw back and lay out the unspoken premise: by declaring the unlikelihood of my idea’s ability to “work,” there is a presumption that the current way of doing things “works.”

Does civilization “work?” How would we define that? What are the primary goals of civilization, and are they being achieved, and if so at what costs? This question requires one to define “civilization” before even embarking on a quest to gauge its success. I think it is fair to assume that if you were to seek a common definition of civilization from laypeople on the streets, the recurring themes would likely surround the existence of arts, literature, philosophy, and surpluses of resources. Civilization is in this view, Plato and Leonardo Da Vinci hanging out in robes and Google Glasses, drinking wine in the park and thinking deep thoughts. The antithesis of this cartoon vision holds that the uncivilized would be anyone wearing warpaint and a loincloth while roasting a pig on a spit.

Caricatures aside, how can we academically define civilization? Writer Derrick Jensen devotes some time to defining civilization in his two volume work, Endgame:

I would define a civilization much more precisely [relative to standard dictionary definitions], and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined–so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on–as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.

In his own efforts to define civilization, writer Aric McBay offers:

This common thread is control. Civilization is a culture of control. In civilizations, a small group of people controls a large group of people through the institutions of civilization. If they are beyond the frontier of that civilization, then that control will come in the form of armies and missionaries (be they religious or technical specialists). If the people to be controlled are inside of the cities, inside of civilization, then the control may come through domestic militaries (i.e., police). However, it is likely cheaper and less overtly violent to condition certain types of behaviour through religion, schools or media, and related means, than through the use of outright force (which requires a substantial investment in weapons, surveillance and labour). 

That works very effectively in combination with economic and agricultural control. If you control the supply of food and other essentials of life, people have to do what you say or they die. People inside of cities inherently depend on food systems controlled by the rulers to survive, since the (commonly accepted) definition of a city is that the population dense enough to require the importation of food.

Richard Heinberg in his critique of civilization wrote:

…for the most part the history of civilization…is also the history of kingship, slavery, conquest, agriculture, overpopulation, and environmental ruin. And these traits continue in civilization’s most recent phases–the industrial state and the global market–though now the state itself takes the place of the king, and slavery becomes wage labor and de facto colonialism administered through multinational corporations. Meanwhile, the mechanization of production (which began with agriculture) is overtaking nearly every avenue of human creativity, population is skyrocketing, and organized warfare is resulting in unprecedented levels of bloodshed.

If the reader finds a bias in these definitions, I offer this one from Wikipedia:

The term is used to contrast with other types of communities including hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists and tribal villages. Civilizations have more densely populated settlements divided into social classes with a ruling elite and subordinate urban and rural populations, which, by the division of labour, engage in intensive agriculture, mining, small-scale manufacture and trade. Civilization concentrates power, extending human control over both nature, and over other human beings.

Some combination of the characteristics offered above, with room for nuance, forms my personal definition of civilization, and should be used insofar as understanding the question I posed above, “Does civilization work?”

To answer this, of course, we must also define “work.” What exactly is civilization trying to accomplish? High living standards for all members? Artistic greatness? This is almost impossible to measure as there are no set goals civilization is attempting to achieve and not set values by which it is trying to achieve them. It is likely more productive to approach this question by examining what civilization does. After all, to borrow a term from systems theorists, “The purpose of a system is what it does.”

So what does civilization do? What is accomplished by people living in large urban centers where the majority of their survival necessities must be imported and their waste exported? Well, for starters, the people within the cities do not have to engage in any of the toil required to aggregate the calories and nutrients to stay alive. These people are thus freed to do other things with their time. This begins to form the base of the hierarchy of work. Peasants do the heavy lifting in the fields while professional types earn higher incomes to engage in what they dub to be “skilled labor.” We are told all of this would come unhinged if it weren’t for the tireless efforts of professional decision makers; politicians and captains of industry who are granted the most influence and the highest incomes. Of course, there is a class within the cities who don’t earn high incomes, and they are generally relegated to laboring to support the “skilled laborers,” and other elites by manufacturing goods, doing janitorial work, preparing food, maintaining infrastructure, etc. In the modern world, all of the heavy lifting in the agricultural fields is no longer accomplished with human muscle alone, as the majority of the grunt work is performed by hydrocarbons, predominantly oil. The acquisition of this oil comes at a great ecological cost, from the deep wells in the gulf of Mexico to the war torn fields of Iraq to the decimated Niger delta. Anywhere on Earth where oil is being pumped out of the ground, there is death, be it human, animal, or entire ecosystems and ways of life.

Speaking of death, civilization seems to spread a lot of it around. From global and regional wars that scar the land and leave millions dead, to the constant emission of toxicity which has inundated the air, the water, and the soil with heavy metals, radioactive particles, and carcinogenic compounds causing cancer and disease. Around the world people sit locked in cages, tormented and dehumanized by their captors. In the US, where I live, the largest prison population on the planet is housed, we are told, to maintain the safety of those who participate in civilization according to the dictates of the “decider” class. If we ignore humans for a moment and try to tally the dead amongst our non-human neighbors, the task becomes nearly impossible. The best guess of biologists is that industrial activity is currently causing a mass extinction, and that upwards of two hundred species are being extirpated from the globe every day. Civilization, though it’s adherents would cite its peaceful and good natured virtues, is a bringer of death and suffering.

My critics will cry, “But death is natural; an unavoidable part of life. Absent civilization, death would not vanish.” To be sure, who dies, how, and why, are the key to what civilization does. The organizational framework found within civilization is hierarchical, and I would argue that this top down power structure is woven into the defining characteristics of civilization. With this hierarchy, power is held by a few and lorded over the many. How this is accomplished varies, but as McBay was quoted as stating above, access to food and other necessary resources is a primary component of this control. Civilization has had millennia to refine itself and to create a system for diffusing this “food-under-lock-and-key” scenario, mainly via economics. In this time civilization has been able to normalize its existence and to normalize the power dynamics by which few control many, and under which the ruling few have access to more resources than they will ever require, while the many have unmet needs. Religion, propaganda, nationalism, entertainment, myths of exceptionalism; all have served to sell civilization as a high and dignified way of existing, as well as to demonize alternatives to the civilized model, and to justify the slaughter of those who resist civilization’s advances.

Modern industrial civilization is global. The blur between the thrust of society in the United State, China, Russia, Australia, Brazil, India, South Africa, etc. is essentially the same. Cultures in these nations have their respective variances, but the general direction of human activity remains constant. The drive to acquire wealth by converting land and what it contains into some form of salable good is ubiquitous. The gains from these activities are held by those at the top of the hierarchy, while the overwhelming majority of the labor utilized to achieve those gains was performed by those at the bottom.

While the earliest civilizations would have been based in one or a few city centers which exploited an immediately surrounding region, as empires grew and technology allowed further and faster travel, the exploitation of far away lands and peoples became possible and profitable. Civilizations having merged into a global behemoth, the reality now in the wealthiest regions of the world is that resources and finished products from around the globe are widely available, and relatively, outright suffering is scant. This availability, this control of global people and places, is itself, wealth. By moving resources out of the regions they are born in, and by exploiting a global workforce, civilization has made it possible to extend the lives and drastically increase the comfort of some people at the expense of the lives, health, and happiness of others. Civilization is a con, a game of three-card-monte. It is the shuffling of resources to generate the illusion of plenty. It is the displacement of suffering from one people to another, and the shifting of ecological horrors from home to abroad. The net beneficiaries of this system are wont to ignore it, to never even question its basic functionality. They see images of the starving and dying a world away and ask, “Why don’t they move?”

A tirade against the ills of civilization is old hat for me, and certainly, there will be readers who think me unfair. Education, invention, medicine, art, sport, and so many other examples of the benefits of civilized life are likely hanging at the fore of my critics’ minds. Absolutely, these are components of civilized life, but not exclusively so. What education or innovation or medicine or art look like and how they are distributed may look different under civilized and non-civilized paradigms, but in no way are they monopolized by the former or absent from the latter. Under a civilized paradigm, the arts, sports, education, medicine – these all become the realms of professionals to a great extent, whereas for the non-civilized these are communal and regular components of daily life.

I don’t want to trade blow for blow, comparing civilized diets to non-civilized, modern medicine to herbalism, etc. I would rather here move onto the costs of the civilized model, for if civilization has its benefits, and if it has its purposes, and if it is doling these benefits and achieving these goals, we must then ask, “are they worth the cost?”

Calculating the costs of civilization is a monumental task, and doing so with any sort of scientific accuracy is likely beyond my capabilities. As a purely philosophical exercise, I would like to briefly address the issue by looking at a handful of categories.

First, there is the ecology. It is inarguable that civilization is detrimental to ecology and always has been. As human animals, we are not necessarily a net deficiency to our habitat, despite the absurd claims of those who would like us to believe that to live is to harm, so we should absent-mindedly live it up. Hunting, fishing, and even small scale planting are not necessarily destructive to an ecosystem. Sinking mine shafts, leveling mountains, damming rivers, trawling the oceans, spewing industrial waste into the atmosphere, clear cutting forests, razing prairie, laying concrete, mono-crop planting, stripping topsoil; these are all massive ecological harms, which if undertaken with an ever increasing rate become systemically cataclysmic whereby species are driven into extinction, habitat collapses, and the damage is irreparable.

Can civilization exist without such activities? Surely pre-modern civilizations did not utilize all of these methods? In fact, every pre-modern civilization did exploit the resources they had access to with what technology they had available. The forests of the middle east were leveled by the earliest civilizations, creating the barren land that now exists there. The Mesopotamians irrigated farm fields to grow great surpluses of food, until the build up of silt in their canals and salts in their soil destroyed their agricultural adventures and led to their collapse. The Greeks and Romans viciously deforested the Mediterranean basin, and the resulting topsoil loss has prevented a recovery in the region. The Maya similarly brought about their own doom by deforesting their region for agriculture and the production of lime concrete. The collapses of all pre-modern civilizations have an environmental component. By seeking to use agricultural bounty to temporarily increase their populations and thus their power, early civilizations created inescapable paradigms dependent on infinite growth. Modern civilization is no different, just more adept at avoiding early onset collapse through innovation.

Ecological costs are probably the most in dire need of attention, but costs in human misery are not to be ignored. In this vein, there is the obvious misery generated by civilization and its processes: those killed and maimed by war, those whose DNA is damaged by industrial toxins resulting in cancers, those who subsist in poverty globally, those in prison, those who are persecuted, those who are slaves, those who have their hereditary land stolen, those who are victims of genocide; these are the billions who clearly suffer, these are the billions who make possible the comforts and abundance enjoyed in wealthy nations.

But let’s not stop there. Inside the gates, the people who are beneficiaries of the pillaging of the wild suffer in ways they recognize and in ways they don’t. In the United States, one in five adults are taking a psychiatric drug, either an anti-depressant, an anti-psychotic, or an anti-anxiety prescription. Ten percent of the population suffers from clinical depression. Thirty percent of the population abuses alcohol. Numbers on recreational drug use are harder to come by. Add in those addicted to shopping, eating, sex, gambling, and pornography, and it is likely safe to say that about half of the American population is either depressed, burdened with anxiety, or has some debilitating habit of escapism. Can we blame them? What does the majority of life in the United States consist of? Working a job over which you have relatively little control, where it is likely your creativity is stifled, and from which you do not directly benefit? This consumes forty if not more hours of a person’s life every week. Commuting to and from this job and accomplishing the unrecognized shadow labor of preparing for this job, from taking clothing to a dry cleaners, dropping children off at day care, or even shaving, means that considerably more time is robbed from one’s life to serve the economic system.

Life in this civilization brings a large set of medical risks as well. Despite the illusion of abundance, most of the food the population has access to is derived from a handful of ingredients, primarily corn, wheat, soy, and beet sugar. The production of these crops en-masse is economically efficient, and therefore they have become the foundation of the western diet. The hand maiden of this poor nutritional foundation is tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, “Cancer will affect one in two men and one in three women in the United States, and the number of new cases of cancer is set to nearly double by the year 2050.”

Despite the myths we are imprinted with about the greatness of civilization, the reality is quite ugly. For a select few, the benefits and wealth and power granted by this particular organizational system are incalculable. For most, participation in civilization is comprised of boredom, obedience, servitude, and depression while daily spinning the wheel of fortune to see if they will be one of the unlucky ones who is stricken with cancer, all the while slowly degrading their body and masking their unhappiness with drugs, deviant behavior, or plain and simple escapism into fantasy.

Should I even begin to assess the misery associated with maintaining full compliance with the state and its bureaucracies which is a must if one wants to avoid court rooms, prisons, and police?

Though I was born to middle class parents, on my own, I eke out an existence in near poverty. This is partly by choice, in that I am clever enough to acquire a higher income, but I cannot burden my conscience with what such a pay grade would ask of me. For myself and the people in my region who also get by on small amounts of money, it is clear that we are not thriving in civilization, but artfully navigating it, succumbing to some of its pratfalls while skillfully parrying others. Ours is one of innumerable subcultures and informal economies that dot the landscape globally. Examples abound of squatters, homesteaders, hobos, punks, drug dealers, communes, scrappers, monks, travelers, and the myriad others around the Earth who hope the eye of Sauron doesn’t ever draw its focus on them.

Here in the cracks and dark corners alternatives to civilization simmer in the primordial soup of human consciousness. Too few to outright revolt with only the occasional exception, there are people who retreat to something similar to what I would dare call the natural state of human organization; tribalism.

No, civilization does not work, not if the definition of work includes caring for all equally and stewarding our habitat with humans and non-humans many generations to come genuinely considered. Ignoring the monuments to the egos of psychopaths, from pyramids and temples to skyscrapers and particle accelerators, civilization leaves nothing for the future. Civilization is a cannibal, greedily devouring any concept of tomorrow for a grotesque spectacle of largess today, which is only enjoyed by a select few. The ceremonies and titles of today may look and sound different than those of the Aztec or the Persian, but the macabre reality behind the pomp and circumstance is absolutely the same, only scarier in that the rate and ability of modern civilization to churn up the living world before melting it on a spoon for an ephemeral high is exponentially greater.

Civilization needs three planets, according to the scientists. Civilization is running out of fuel for the furnace, and the holy men are telling us that it is not time to abandon the machine; despite the misery, despite the servitude, despite the disease, despite the poverty, despite the extinction, despite the necessity of death – we must take this organizational system beyond our planetary borders, as missionaries of madness because we know nothing of humility or grace. Because we’re too afraid to admit we have made a mistake. So we drive on, lost and running out of gas, because we’re too damn proud to turn around.

Suggesting that there is another way for humans to organize without hierarchy, without massive population centers that require the exploitation of outlying areas, without violence and control; this is not utopianism. It is suggesting that we look at how human beings existed for the majority of their time on planet Earth, and asking that we take from that wealth of knowledge the best ideas, and that we ask of ourselves a willingness to adapt to life without the benefit of some slavery far away, some suffering we can ignore, some set of dying eyes we can avoid looking into. It is asking that we live where we are, that we find a concept of home, and that we welcome the challenges that life presents while refusing to solve them on the back of someone else’s misery.

They will say that “we cannot go back.” They will say pastoral lives where we are intimately connected to our community, human and not, are impossible, unthinkable, insane. Then they will say, “we must begin to live on Mars.”

UPDATE: A reader noted that in Dennis Bushnell is claiming humanity needs three MORE planets, for a total of four. Madness indeed.


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