February 20, 2018 § 9 Comments
Each time the sledgehammer struck the iron wedge, a clang echoed through the sliver of woodland. When I was a ten-year-old boy, this strip of pine trees was Sherwood Forest. With twine, laundry line, and whatever cordage I could scrounge I would lash sticks horizontally from tree trunk to tree trunk, on top of which I would lay pine boughs to create make shift shelters and forts. Rope slung from a branch would be used to swing wildly back and forth, and though only a few inches above the ground I felt as if I were way up in the canopy.
Now I was cutting down the standing dead pines in my parent’s suburban backyard that were once such a source of magic. My mother and stepfather will be putting their house on the market in the spring, and I travelled home with my family to help them get the place in shape. Standing in six inches of recently fallen snow, I made face and back cuts in the trees I once played amongst, in this little windbreak that I once felt was a forest. So thoroughly dead and light the trees were, that their weight wasn’t enough to topple them. Entangled in the chaotic crisscrossing and interweaving of branches thirty feet up, the trees would not fall until I hoisted their severed bases in my arms, and began walking them away from their stumps.
Once on the ground, limbed and bucked, I gathered up the branches and carried them to a brush pile at the back corner of my parent’s yard. Hidden amongst bushes and small trees, a series of old T-Posts still stood at various angles on the western edge of the property. One strand of rusted and cracked barbed wire still connected them, demarcating the line between two former farm fields, and seemingly, between the past and the present.
Really staring at a house will betray all of the slight flaws that go so easily overlooked when one is just living in it. Creaks in the floor, poorly placed trim, cracked paint, rotting wood. My parent’s house was built sometime in the 1980’s, which should not seem old. However, it was clearly built as part of a rush of development that swallowed up farms, forests, and marshes north and west of Chicago in that era. Pulling electric sockets from the kitchen walls, my sister’s boyfriend noticed the lack of ground wires. As I painted the living room, I saw how the wooden window frames were aged and flaking. Drywall seams on the hallway ceiling were obvious. Apparently, in the master bathroom a pipe in the wall had recently snapped. We triaged the most obvious issues, but everywhere we looked, if we really looked, we saw more that was either failing from age or from a complete neglect by whoever did the original work thirty something years ago.
From the outside, if you were to drive through the neighborhood, one would probably think, “This is a really nice place.” The houses are relatively big, the yards are relatively big, and everything has that “American dream” sort of aesthetic. It is suburbia, but not the chain link fence and small brick bungalow suburbia of the 1960’s. It is the two-story, four bedroom, half acre suburbia that seemed so optimal in 1995. That is, until the full on, three-car-garage, two air conditioner, and finished basement with a mini kitchen McMansion craze of the 2000’s came in and made it irrelevant.
The area where my parent’s have their house used to sit at the very edge of development. To the west were vast cornfields and pockets of forest. Plenty of big box stores and chain restaurants flourished there for a time. A mall is a five-minute drive away. But as the years passed, the cornfields were bought up and the little patches of forest were cut and scraped clean. Like an infestation, suburbia expanded. Where once I saw cows roam on grass, there are now hundreds of homes. How a neighborhood was crammed onto that pasture, I’ll never understand.
Strips of stores replaced the farms, and now where the western edge of development lies, I am not sure. But I do know that a large number of the retail structures that housed restaurants and stores when I was in high school are now vacant. Apparently when the newer bigger houses were built further down the interstate, the money went with them. The owners of the now abandoned commercial real estate have refinished the building’s exteriors, as if praying to some gods of commerce to please bring back the stores. But the gods have moved on, and now they hover over the Meijers, and Caribou Coffees, and Verizon Wirelesses some ten miles yonder.
What are people supposed to do with an empty Wal-Mart or a vacant Best Buy? When are we allowed to bulldoze the corpse of the strip mall, and bury its rubble? The twenty years these places were in business, workers smiling at customers, it was all an illusion. A sleight of hand to make this place seem relevant so money could be siphoned to some far away bank account. The employees now long let go, who knows where they went? Maybe they followed the displaced foxes and pheasant.
Entropy is a constant, yet it seems so constantly ignored. The cost of maintaining merely what we have is enormous, but it is so much less exciting to think about than the new things we could have that are just around the corner.
Standing in my parent’s front yard I look down the street at all of the other homes. With snow covered yards and roofs, the place looks quaint. Yet I wonder about the rot. None of these houses could have been built well. The desire to turn a quick profit that informed the shoddy workmanship on my parent’s house could not have been contained merely to this one structure on this one block, or in this one town, or this one state. I once heard that all of the palm trees in Phoenix were brought into the city around the same time, so that in so many years, they would all begin to die at about the same time. I do not really know if that is true, but it has me wondering if the suburbs will all start falling into massive disrepair at the same time.
Last week a nineteen-year-old man went into his old high school in Parkland, Florida and shot seventeen people to death. Mass shootings are becoming passé in America at this point, and only those with really high death tolls and really young victims even provoke much of a reaction. What could possibly cause a person to want to commit such an atrocious act? What kind of rot exists in their soul? What kind of maintenance and upkeep has been avoided in the person who walks up to a series of strangers and executes them? Further, what kind of emotional and spiritual work has gone long undone in a culture that churns out these damaged individuals over, and over, and over again?
Doing something well, making something that will last, is not prized in this culture. All that matters is completing the transaction. Once the purchase is made, the relationship is over and the poor sucker holding the bag can deal with the fall out. Empty and depressing malls ring towns of financially strapped families living in factory framed houses. Adults work wherever there is work for however long they have to while children are shuffled through overcrowded and underfunded schools until the bell rings and they are sent out into the meaningless wastes of suburbia. By some miracle a few of them turn out exemplary, while others muddle through it towards a life of alcohol and anxiety medication. Sadly, there are those who join the ranks of rising suicide numbers while for some, the isolation and emptiness of life in capitalism push them into online enclaves of the angry and marginalized. In these holes they fester together, often lionizing lone wolf killers and school shooters.
Tragedy is all but unavoidable.
How do we tend to needs that have gone unmet for decades? How do we do social upkeep in a culture that wants us to believe that there is no society, only hard working winners, lazy losers, and a stop at Chick-Fil-A in between? How do we build places worth living in, and how do we make lives worth living? While trillions are spent on militaristically enforcing empire around the globe, our bridges and water mains crumble, and our population has sunk into such a deep pit of despair that it spends almost every non-working hour escaping into a drug or a fictional landscape. Hell, even those working hours are often only accomplished with the aid of a chemical, be it a pharmaceutical or just some whiskey in the thermos or coffee cup. Then a quick dash home to watch the game, or to binge watch netflix, or to strap an AR set on your face.
It seems as though easy problems are the only ones that get tended to. A coat of paint is pretty easy to apply, and carpets can be steamed and come out looking pretty nice. The creaking floor in the bathroom is another issue altogether. The tile has to come up to get to the subfloor, and the tub has to come up to get to the tile, and if you’re pulling the tub you are going to have to pull up that counter top that hangs in the way.
Shit. Throw down an extra plush rug and hope it muffles some of the sound.
Days later, back in my own woods the sun is shining as I walk towards my garden. It is seventy degrees out in February, and so I am told the polar vortex has split in two, or something of the sort. I see tulip leaves gently shifting mulch to the side so they can grow skyward. My daughter walks next to me and I point out to her the small green spikes of daffodils breaking through the well-thawed surface of the Earth. Cranes whoop overhead, and I smile. They have made that journey countless times.
Then I wonder if there is something we haven’t broken.
December 8, 2017 § 11 Comments
In the dull glow of my headlights, he drags the deer off of the road while a cigarette clings to his lower lip. My hazard lights blink rhythmically, an orange glow rising and falling on the grass lining the shoulder of the road. His son stands back and watches, and the man stumbles as the deer kicks her legs. I was the first to pull over, having seen the doe lying in the road as I drove passed her. She craned her neck and swung it in a large halo arc as if trying to shake free of an invisible infliction now crippling her. After a quick U-turn and parking my jeep in the grass, I approached the doe to find that she did not seem to be losing blood, but she clearly could not stand. A broken leg, or legs, perhaps.
The man and his son pulled over a few moments later. I had a gun in my car, but I was within town limits and not eager to commit a firearms violation. Ironically enough, I chose not to bring my knife with me to town this morning. The man’s son procured one from his pocket after his father had moved the injured animal out of the path of traffic. He flicked the blade open and it clicked into place. Turning the handle outward, he said, “Dad.”
I have made an effort to always treat the act of killing an animal as significant. What ceremony I make in the moment before I kill could be preposterous and meaningless for all I know. But I make ceremonies anyway because I am wary of hardening off, of callousing myself in manners of death. People who talk to trees do not create a business of clear cutting forests, and people who are humble in the act of killing for food do not develop a blood lust, or a sick enjoyment of the act of taking life.
Extending her neck by tugging on one of her ears, the man pulls the short blade across the frightened doe’s throat. I see the dark blood on the wet green grass, and I whisper to her. Orange light from my flashers pulses as the deer’s breath quickens. The man and his son return to their car and drive off. With my hood pulled over my head to hide from the night’s chill, I stand and watch the doe slowly die. Steam rises from the hole in her neck, and at first I speak, suggesting that she think of her mother, of days spent in the forest, of running and the wind. Then I am quiet, wondering if human voices may be hideous to her, especially in light of the circumstances. I spend the minutes silently, and somberly, until her tail flutters and her body writhes with that last flow of electric vitality that animates us all. When she is entirely still, I wait a minute longer before approaching. Her eyes are glass. My fingertips drag across her barrel.
I load her into my trunk, and head home.
Just like that, Ventura, California went up in flames. Wildfire season has drifted long past its October peak, and a week into December southern California’s hills are ablaze. Anaheim suffered massive fires already this year, as did the wine country region north of the bay. 2017 has been a record year for wild fires. Washington state, Oregon, Montana, British Columbia, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia; all were affected by droughts, record temperatures, and other conditions which saw elongated fire seasons and increased destruction.
Then there were the hurricanes. Houston was underwater after Harvey dumped rains that obliterated records. Florida was walked over by Irma. Puerto Rico and several other island states were utterly hammered by Maria, and months later they still endure a lack of electricity, clean water, and supplies.
With one million cars destroyed by floods, and countless homes needing gutting or even total rebuilds for those consumed by fire, the fallback for most people is some form of insurance. In order to function, an insurance company must presume that the likelihood of a maximum payout is very small. In a world of increased storm intensity or fire frequency, the numbers insurance companies use as a foundation for their business model no longer stand.
The same runs true for health insurance. Conceptually, health is supposed to be the presumed baseline for any given human being paying into the system. Injury or severe illness should be the outlier. At least in the United States, that no longer is the case. The CDC reported in October that the American obesity rate is at an all time high, with one in four Americans registering as obese. In July, the CDC reported that more than one-hundred-million Americans are either diabetic or prediabetic, which breaks down to one in three people.
Of course, regarding insurance, increased natural disasters and a dramatic slide in human health quickly conjure images of the mathematical doom and gloom scenarios of increased premiums, failing markets, and government bailouts. But beyond the obvious morass of economic consequences, when I think about insurance as a concept, what comes to mind is the modern desire to iron out the disruptions of life.
People in modern, western societies would like to move the starting line of existence out of a wild and chaotic world and into one which is static and controlled, a world in which disasters and loss are flukes, like bugs in a software system that with enough attention and manipulation can eventually be eliminated entirely. With large material acquisition comes the desire for permanence and predictability.
A house is the greatest expense in one’s life, typically. To labor for decades on decades in order to pay for the house, as well as to fill it with stuff, is dangerous business in a world that can take it all away with one fell stroke. Insurance is a casino game we play, regularly laying a chip on a low probability event “just in case” the unthinkable happens. Is there a greater fear than being reset to zero after years and years of numb drudgery, all of it in the service of stacking up a bigger and bigger pile of things? The entire edifice of consumer society rests on the idea that we will work today and that the things we buy will still be ours tomorrow. No longer able to live in the world, to see the providence in the fields and streams, only the store shelves can keep us alive, and so we tithe the gods of chance praying that the future is long and uneventful.
The ravages of civilization and its primary bag man of capitalism are skewing all of the odds. The seeds of climate change long planted and fully in bloom, the coastal property will flood, and the house in the hills will burn. War will rage, broken people will commit mass murder, and infrastructure will fail. On top of all that, the long process of killing the family farm, destroying decent wages, and handing out subsidies and favorable legislation to agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations has placed a too heavy burden on individual human bodies and the ecology that keeps them alive. Health is no longer the baseline. Diabetes cases will increase, cancer cases will increase, mental health will decline, opiate addiction will flourish.
A numbers game generated to give the masses a sense of safety, to propagate the illusion of a world of stability and permanence will fail. It is a game that was always predicated on growth, on there always being more, on the energy and capital to rebuild bodies and homes and cities to always be plentiful. And now what? What becomes of the modern world when there is no promise of tomorrow? How will people respond when certainty decomposes and there is no promise of rescue from rare events that quickly become regular? Forget the markets, and behold the global philosophical breakdown.
The temperature was just below freezing when I hung the doe from a young maple tree outside of my house. In the darkness my cold hands were warmed as I pulled her entrails from her body cavity, slowly, so as not to burst her full stomach. With the sunrise I was outside, my newly sharpened knife barely dragging over the membrane connecting the deer’s hide to her muscle. So finely honed was the blade that it took but the faintest painter’s touch to complete the work. I cut away strips of white fat and fed them to my dog who was eagerly observing me. The chickens were given the viscera and the carcass. One foreleg was placed in the forest, a gift for the ravens.
The meat of the animal was divided into three piles, most of it wrapped in used plastic bags. One of the piles was for us, and the two others were for friends of ours. They are the families on whom we rely for anything from companionship to childcare to car repair. In this way I pad my security, with a surprise trip to a friend’s house, fresh meat and a dozen eggs in hand.
Tomorrow was always an illusion.
November 9, 2017 § 14 Comments
My wife and daughter are asleep, so I move quietly through our small house. Stepping into my shin-high mud boots, I pull my heavy coat over my arms, flipping the hood forward over my head. Gravel crunches under my feet as I take the few steps across my driveway to the ring of bucked maple logs stood on end that encircle my fire pit. Sitting down onto one of these pieces of damp wood I exhale into the cold night. Fog from my mouth drifts upwards and I follow it with my eyes. The moon is two days shy of full but its glow remains mostly diffused by a curtain of thick clouds, which are streaming across the navy sky. Breaks and gaps in this near solid gray mass offer glimpses of the shining white lunar face before shrouding it once again.
Earlier in the day I imagined having a fire in this moment, but the notion seems silly now. It is approaching midnight, and the charcoal and bits of scrap wood on the ground before me are wet from the recent rains. Clicking a lighter, I hold its fire to the wick of a little candle that I drew from my pocket, and when the flame is passed I set the candle down on the ground before me. I breathe out again, and again I watch the fog from my mouth arc and pull as it dances upwards, the vapor now a milky white saturated by the candle’s glow.
Samhain is when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. The tall trees bending overhead are mostly bare. Life is retreating into the soil, sequestering itself to the root ball and the burrow, mulching itself deeply under a quilt of leaves and dry grass. The frogs are silent, the humming insects gone. By day, murmurations of starlings ripple and contort across the sky as they pass through to warmer meridians, and by night the barred owls call into the lonely dark. I am outside in the cold this Halloween night to speak through the veil.
My words are mostly those of gratitude. But I also speak of sorrow and longing. Sitting in that deep blue night with pale moonlight drifting through fast moving clouds, I could feel myself aching for another world. A world smelling of moss on stone. A world marked by black earth running the lines on our palms like ink. A world of hair perfumed with wood smoke. A world of antler and hide, iron and feather. A world where predawn divination heralded by heaven’s movement is silently considered and a sunset punctuated by a raven’s call is taken in the day’s considerations.
We all seek signs and signals, but now gather them from within the gyre of our madness rather than from without.
The knife I carry is a fixed blade. It has a mahogany brown wooden handle and a leather sheath that fixes to my belt. I had it sharpened the other day, as years of use have dulled its edge. Yes, I paid a man a couple dollars to do it for me, as knife sharpening is actually quite the learned skill, and despite owning a whetstone, my talent for honing knives is not that great. The man who sharpened it owns a small knife store in town, and he carries some very fine pieces. As I perused his shelves I came to thinking about knives and the fetishization of knives that exists within certain communities. There are preppers, backpackers, and people who obsess over gear for their every-day-carry, or EDC, which is sort of a combination of gear obsession and prepping. For people in these niche subcultures, the knife holds a special place as the penultimate survival tool. When I think about middle aged men driving to work on an expressway or taking a city bus with an expensive knife in their briefcase or laptop bag, I wonder if somewhere inside of them they aren’t longing for a different world too. I wonder if perhaps they do not also long for a world of greater utility. I imagine men in suits awaiting catastrophe so they can have a chance to be useful, and to use simple tools to accomplish necessary goals. How many carry a knife through a prefabricated world of plastic and fiberglass so that maybe one day on the way home, they can skin a rabbit?
It is not just knives either. It’s trail running shoes, paracord bracelets, flashlights, and anything else that can be myopically focused on across forums and Amazon reviews so that when the big day comes, when an active shooter or an earthquake or Kim Jong Un himself comes to devastate their town, these people can haul ass across the rubble and then lash together a makeshift raft in the dark.
That job they worked so hard to get is boring them to death, so they imagine the day when it all disappears in a cloud of ash, and until then, they carry their high priced survival tools like totems, fingering the fire steel in their pocket like a rosary.
Another day, another festival of homicide. In a small church within a small town in Texas, twenty-six people were shot dead with another twenty wounded. Casualties like this are the numbers one would see in tribal warfare. Why within a supposedly homogenous culture are individuals declaring war on the people around them? The fact that it is even possible for a person to look at a group of people in their town and then to execute them all makes it evident that there is decay in place of meaningful bonds between people in what are communities now in name only. Interactions having been shorn of the elements that would in times past have bound people into networks of mutual aid and survival, now are reduced to momentary transactions. I need you only for the briefest time and only to run my credit card. Soon a machine will even do that. Where once we sat in a circle to laugh, to sing, to plan, and to belong, now we quickly shuffle through crowded streets frustrated by the human obstacles in our path, at best politely tolerating one and other, at worst loathing the multitudes, feeling revulsion at their presence the way one does when viewing an abscess or a tumor.
As people scramble to comprehend the “why” behind this mass murder, there are those who quickly assign responsibility to political factions they detest, a tune which we have all now heard before. Far right conspiracy theorists and militia members have done just this by going so far as to manufacture content that generates the appearance that the murderer is a leftist. If we cannot come to grips with why this culture that so thoroughly hates life churns out a steady drip of maniacs, then by gum we will at least make certain to tarnish whole swaths of people who we do not like, even if it means deceiving those we claim affinity with.
Daily, hourly, hell, every few minutes people are turning to the little oracles in their pockets for signs and signals. Trying to tease out meaning and perhaps a glimpse of the future by reading the tea leaves of click bait headlines that algorithmic compilers have assembled for their various social media feeds. Like a crystal ball psychic gauging your responses, the more you click, the more the algorithm fine tunes your respective results so you get just the reading that you want. You shape reality with your preferences, advertisers all too happy to oblige, priming your rage for the moment you see a behavior or hear an idea that falls outside the constantly narrowing boundaries of your worldview.
Civilization is a collective psychosis. Each human mind perceives its own version of reality. In slow times and small groups this is a far more manageable conundrum. Foundations of understanding can be built from simple observations – rock, tree, fish – and a shared worldview can then take shape. No two identical, but similar enough to agree upon the environment in which they exist and how to go about surviving. Civilization instead defines existence from the top down, and has drawn and quartered any and every faint inkling of the sacred or the mystical. Feelings of interaction with the living world around us have been demoted to the status of juvenile ravings. In the hyper complex modern world, entropy now is fracturing language. Symbols are bled of their meaning only to be recuperated by charlatans leaving the denizens of the national plantation unable to come to terms over how to define their present context, let alone their future. So they check their devices for an update.
Spinning in the fray the algorithms draw battle lines, and the anima mundi just whispers, speaking through the old ones who yet remain for any who might still care to hear.
Through the veil I speak my gratitude, and my sorrow. She breathes, “patience.”
October 9, 2017 § 27 Comments
I wake to rain. Hard rain falling on the steel roof of our cabin, a torrent surrounding us, not pitter-pattering but rushing through the tree canopy and over our heads with a roar. Dawn is not yet broken, and in the dull gray I hear the rain and am satisfied. I fall back into sleep.
In the late morning I walk with my daughter to the front of our land. Rain still, and we in our slickers carry the day’s compost load and a small cloth bag which I use to collect eggs. My daughter trails several feet behind me, slowed as the umbrella she insisted on carrying blocks her view.
Through the gate into the chicken paddock, a maybe six thousand square foot piece of land at the forest’s edge. Behind the chicken house a blue open topped barrel catches rainwater, and as I approach it, I hope it has at least filled to the halfway point. The days and weeks have been dry of late, rains sparse, just enough to keep the well-mulched garden alive. Across the county creeks are empty, lake waterlines low. I see that the barrel is in fact totally filled, water running down its bulk. I am grateful. In the back corner of my garden is the duck house, with its own blue barrel and small pond to boot. Both are full. Likewise, the rain collection tank at the barn is topped off.
We made it through another summer. In a few months this water freezing will be my concern, but not today. Today I give thanks.
Autumn finds me a bit morose this year. The season for me is a time of culmination and reflection, and while a bit of melancholy coloring the edges of my mind this time of year is not unexpected, it has come heavier this particular season. I am feeling the wounds of the world. My gut cries for the wild, and I am tugged by yearning, wanting to run and to howl and to pant for breath in a deep and fecund wood in some other time, in a place long before or long after humanity’s grand attempt to subdue and control the beating heart of the Earth.
A man shot and killed a lot of strangers in Las Vegas the other day. The immediate reaction of many people was to presume this man belonged to an opposing political faction than their own, and in a macabre game of hot potato they tried to excoriate their enemies by tossing him like a live grenade into the other’s camp. Some howled for gun control laws. Others crafted bizarre conspiracy theories. We have seen this play out time and again in cases of random mass murders. Such events are almost a seasonal holiday in the US at this point. With such frequency it is a shame that so rarely is it uttered with any volume that these happenings are the result of the particulars of the culture.
Life in the modern, capitalist west is tedium. It is an exhausting bore. Without any substantial sense of belonging or meaning, stripped of spirit and tasked with an endless quest for money that buys less and less, people are miserable. Life has been shorn of all of the ceremonies and customs that once bonded a people and gave them a sense of purpose, and they are left with mere commerce. If a person out in public is not engaged in some act of buying or selling, they are loitering, they are a nuisance to be moved along. Most of the public has come to understand this unspoken premise, and they enforce it with vitriol at the sight of the homeless, the panhandler, the protestor. “Get a job!” they yell, but what they mean is “participate,” by which they mean “succumb, as I have, and call it virtue, as I do.”
The malaise of existence in this world where the wild is all but extinguished is felt far and wide, whether it is understood as such or not. Absent community and a deep sense of both autonomy and personal value, people become damaged. This damage expresses itself in myriad ways, as each individual filters the abuse of the dominant culture through their specific experience and biology. For many, self-medication is the obvious solution. People drink away the boredom and the sorrow. They smoke away the frustration and rage. Some turn to harder drugs, those with money buy them from a doctor and stay on the safe side of the legal apparatus. Those with less acquire their narcotics from a street dealer. Both buy their way out of feeling the depression, the pointlessness, the pain. The former boost pharmaceutical stock prices, the latter boost the share values of private prison enterprises.
For others, it is all too much to bear, and they kill themselves. In rare cases, the desire to kill turns outward.
It’s actually strange that this outcome is seen as strange. We are a people who isolate themselves in personal domiciles, personal cars, individual cubicles. From others we hide under headphones and behind screens communicating without voices or faces, just curt text and childish pictographs. By and large our hands never touch soil, our noses never smell wood smoke, our muscles don’t pump with lactic acid, our brows do not know sweat, our eyes do not know starlight. We have hammered the circle of time into a straight line, and bent the circles people used to sit in while they sang and laughed into single file queues in which we are silent, eyes cast down lest they meet another’s.
We do not live. Living is active. We are only active in the pursuit of making someone else rich while we earn just enough to make it until the next paycheck, and then we are passive. We sit and stare, trading entertainment for experience, hoping that watching others pretend to live will suffice by proxy.
Of course, there are outliers. There are some who recognize the ugliness of this existence, who with blood pumping in their veins take to the streets against the police and politicians who hem us all in with laws, with the confiscation of the commons, and with the baton and gun that back it all up. These people are too few, and the great proportion of the public spits at them. Any mention of the great crimes and shortcomings of civilization indicts all who refuse to act, and most prefer not to act, knowing that to act against power is dangerous. Further, most know that acquiescence of conscience and soul is far easier when one’s fellow downtrodden don’t ever talk about it. If we all agree to call the cage freedom, then it is freedom. If we call the plantation the country, or the economy, then we cease to be exploited and can through the power of linguistic device instead be the citizen.
Of course, the heart and the head can only be fooled so much. So the cracks in the veneer are filled with alcohol, drugs, shopping, watching, and occasionally a foray into homicide.
I was reading about the buffalo the other day. In the nineteenth century the US military set out to intentionally destroy the buffalo, even if by turning a blind eye to white hunters who illegally killed buffalo on Indian lands. It was remarked by Col. Dodge that “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
After the plains Indians had finally succumbed to the genocidal pressure of white settlement, and their remnant bands were forced into reservations, white ranchers brought cattle to their lands. There were some Indians who asked if they could hunt the cattle, primarily as an attempt to maintain their culture. They wanted to sing their hunting songs and perform their ceremonial dances. After allowing it briefly, the whites decided it was best to just package the meat and give it to the Indians.
What becomes of people when you strip them of everything that makes them human? What becomes of people who no longer sing? What becomes of people when they have been taught to insist that the world is silent, and dead? This is all of our heritage. Somewhere far enough back, your progenitors were brought into the fold through death and indignity. Their songs are silent. Their ceremonies are forgotten. And so we stumble blindly forth, in dark corridors seeking. In the black, some remain broken, others take up with history’s killers, and angle to fill the role of the abuser.
In my region there are those who want to cut the forests. They think that they have observed the forest long enough to know how to control it. They think they have the wisdom to manage a forest better than it can manage itself. How does one argue? The only words they will accept are in their own language, the language of domination, the language that insists on seeing only disparate pieces in a grand machine, the language that has exorcized the sacred.
I cannot convince you to leave the forest be in that language. I cannot convince you to seek the wild with those lifeless words. I cannot convince you to abandon this culture in the language that it birthed.
You have to feel it. Perhaps you do already. Perhaps you aren’t sure what you feel, other than a general sense that something is not right. Do not snuff it out. Nurture it. Breathe life into it. Let it guide you to others. Give yourself permission to feel even if it is only the pain. Move boldly through the darkness, and listen for the howl.
August 18, 2016 § 9 Comments
She bends low in the dark. Her index finger and thumb clumsy as they meet, she pulls from the waist and the stalk she holds rises out of the hummus eagerly, offering no resistance. Her hand is dwarfed by the firm yet undulating orange blossom. The sun’s remaining light barely penetrates the gauntlet of trees that stand sentry across the rise and fall of the ridge line. Tangerine daubs speckle through the here and there breaks in the thick ceiling of maple and oak leaves.
“Say, ‘thank you, Chanterelle.’ ”
“Thank you, Chanterelle.”
Her small voice is sincere because I am sincere. She watches her feet as she steps high over sticks and briars heading back towards the trail where her mother stands smiling.
“Remember to shake it.”
She passes the mushroom side to side, moving it from her shoulder instead of her wrist. I follow behind her with long slow steps, my hat in my hand, it is full of chanterelles. Holding the bill like the handle of a small skillet, I gently bounce the mushrooms to release their spores. The rains have finally passed and the trail is soft beneath our feet.
Summer is an incredibly busy time on the homestead, which usually means I put away the effort of writing in favor of merely ruminating as I attend to the constancy of the tasks before me. This has been our most productive year yet insofar as providing our food is concerned, which is encouraging as we have accomplished this yield while living off site until our septic system installation is completed. The abundance of foods like tomatoes and green beans has been overwhelming, and the high heat has made the effort of canning very unappealing. Fortunately, we have friends willing to can for us if we are willing to share the end product, and there are even local restaurants eager to buy our produce.
Squash bugs infested my yellow crook necks and zucchini, and they killed off my Crenshaw and cucumber vines. I collected a satisfying quantity of fruit from all of these plants over the past couple of months so it is with even temper that I yank them by the root, shake them, and place them in a compost pile. When the space is clear I walk over to a wooden gate and lift the chain that holds it closed. As I pull it open a single file line of Rouen ducks comes marching out, quaking proudly as they all make their way to the now bare space before lowering their beaks and feasting on the slow moving squash bugs. I lift my feet high to avoid stepping on the kudzu like sprawl of sweet potato vines and make my way to the garden gate where I pause to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s hot. Humid and hot at four in the afternoon. I think on what else I can get accomplished today. We will be moving back into our home soon and there are still jobs to finish up before doing so, mainly rigging the cistern to the gutters, and installing a hand pump in the kitchen to draw from the cistern. That and cutting another few ricks of firewood. And slapping walls on the barn. And laying the flooring in my daughter’s bedroom. And planting the winter garden.
I could “and” for days. Instead I take a breath and look back at my little girl as she giggles watching the ducks. Its hard to not feel rushed and I make a conscious effort to be present, to be content with the work already done instead of always existing in the stress of that yet to do. The moist air is stagnant, and as I take a moment to scan the spaces around me, noting the tasks big and small that require attention, my mind wanders a bit, and I feel like we are on the edge of something.
This July was globally the warmest month in human memory. Such headlines are almost blase these days as warming trends continually break records. Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in what FEMA has dubbed the worst natural disaster in the United States since hurricane Sandy. Fires rage in the drought stricken American west from southern California to Glacier National Park in Montana. Social tensions continue to flare too, as the National Guard was called in to subdue rioters in Milwaukee, and random acts of violence seem to break loose from the percolating underworld of racist authoritarians emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Venezuela’s economic collapse continues apace, various African nations are succumbing to famine, the war in Syria is drawing larger battle lines between major powers, and despite the best efforts of central banks across the globe, major financial institutions just cannot turn a profit in a world of net energy decline.
For years I have watched the world through a particular lens, and that is the lens of peak oil. Despite the failures of particular peak oil advocates to predict the future, and despite the inability of even larger numbers of critics to actually understand the peak oil concept before engaging in attacking it and its proponents, I still feel that this is a particularly useful lens for viewing the macro picture of human industrial civilization. Of late, I have admittedly felt that I am without a map, and I have found myself in my quiet moments attempting to piece one together. Of course, drawing a map begins with placing a center pin where you currently stand. So where am I? Or if I may be so bold, where are we?
I first became aware of the peak oil concept in 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. After reading the various assessments of the issue that were available on the internet at the time, and of course, being young and impressionable, I took to some of the worst case scenarios presented by outlying bloggers. By and large, these were not the better experts to trust, and I was convinced that ten years out we would be living in a very different world. The economic crash of 2008 felt validating in a sense, but the divergence from prediction that followed forced me to begin rethinking how the decline of industrial civilization would play out. Eight years of very, let us say, creative economics have prevented the full on breakdown of the growth based financial paradigm. I do not believe I am alone in wondering exactly how long such creative policies can sustain the physical world of the production and distribution of material goods.
To be perfectly clear, I am no fan of the civilized model of human organization, and I have repeatedly stated this in my writing. But I do my best to be aware of its functionality so I can properly place myself and my family to best buffer ourselves from the swings of forces beyond our control. The internet is rife with commenters who are eager to bargain with Moloch, hoping to right what they perceive to be the ills of state and capital so that some form of industrial civilization can carry them into the future. These commenters have altars to different demigods. Some light a candle to technology while others burn incense for invisible hands and supposedly free markets. I look out and see dying ash trees and the onslaught of invasive stilt grass and I know in the core of my being that there is no bargaining with civilization. No vertical farm, no vegan diet, no gold-backed currency, no handing over of the means of production to the proletariat will stop what’s coming.
But it is equally true that it is next to impossible to know exactly what is coming, or when it will get here. That is why we try to draw maps. And if we want our maps to be of any use, they should probably start with what we know about the past and the present, so maybe, the best of our efforts can draw lines between the two that give some clue as to the trajectory and direction of the future.
Over the years as I have written on these topics I have been careful to avoid prediction, simply because most people who in engage in it are so often wrong. What’s worse, is that so many people who make names for themselves as so called “trends analysts” and such, not only are often wrong, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are so, and they just continue with the business of making predictions. I would rather make a map, a sketch of the terrain we have covered and of that which I can see through the fog in front of me. As this is a map of the industrial civilization in which we live, there are two compass points which are of extreme importance.
First, is net energy. All work done requires energy to make it happen. The primary energy source for this civilization is oil. This is what makes an understanding of peak oil concepts so valuable. Oil is the foundation of the lion’s share of the work done in this civilization, even being the foundational energy source behind the manufacture of items like solar panels. The diesel trucks that mine for metals or that grow the crops that feed workers are all run with oil. The economic and social architecture of this society requires a growth in the net energy available with which to do work. This is not necessarily a growth in the amount of barrels of oil available at any given time. If those specific barrels of oil utilized more energy in their acquisition than usual, we may be in a situation where we have more quantity of oil available yet less total energy. This will hamper growth, which while good for the ecology of the planet, is a death sentence to financial paradigms where debt is the basis of currency and investment.
The second compass point of importance is the ecological material available to support society. Drinkable water, healthy soil, viable biomes thrush with life, a stable climate; all are necessary to maintain human life and activity. Unfortunately, this point is lost on the so-called educated class who think only in terms of capital. I stress this point because even in the event that a miracle occurs and our energy woes vanish, there is still the issue of our destabilizing climate and over burdened ecosystems. We need bees and butterflies and ants to pollinate crops. We need amphibians to keep insect populations in balance. We need birds to spread seeds. We need fungus and soil life to make plants viable at all. Human activity threatens all of these beings and their habitats.
So as I sketch my map I note the peak of conventional oil production that occurred in the 2005-2008 timeframe. I note the bankruptcies that are tearing through the US unconventional oil industry. I note the banks across Europe that are on the verge of insolvency. I definitely note the trillions of dollars worth of debt monetization across the global financial sector which have been an attempt to cover the spread of missing growth that is required to make good on previous loans and outstanding interest. I also note the shortfalls in needed rain in the American west, the predicted water shortage in Lake Mead, the rising seas and the unprecedented storms. When I step back at my scrawled lines, I see images reminiscent of times past. Politically there are movements that seem to rhyme with what came out of the depression era, and economically there are movements that very much remind me of the warnings that began flashing in 2007 as the mortgage industry began to implode. The page, too, is dotted with the unpredictable lines of natural disaster and ecological calamity.
Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind. My gut says we see an undeniable beginning of this period before winter. Where it all leads is too far out to say. I think it is simplistic when people draw a timeline of the future that consists merely of one trend-line pointing downward. There are hundreds if not thousands of trend-lines that together combine to graph the arch of a particular civilization, and some will yet be on the rise. It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline. It is my humble position that what we have on the horizon is a period of greater unemployment and struggle on a family by family level here in the “first world west.” There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.
Of course, this is a map I am trying to draw for myself so that I can better prepare for the terrain before me and mine. And I’m just some guy who likes homegrown beets and wild mushrooms, so take anything I have to say with that in mind. But at least I’m not trying to sell you a pamphlet about gold coins, and you’ll notice there are no ads for gas masks or survival seeds on my web page (unless word press puts them there.)
My personal activity includes shoring up on the basics. Preventative car maintenance on both of our four wheel drive Jeeps, which each contain tools and flashlights, so that floods and storms are more navigable. Selling off unneeded items to pay for home improvements as well as a bit more archery gear as I want to take a deer by bow this fall and to make as much jerky as possible. Buying all of my spring seeds now, and making sure we have plenty of simple things like candles and lighters, lard and honey. This is all stuff that gets regular use, so there are no regrettable wastes of money.
My index finger presses into the soft soil with ease. A dried pea falls silently into the hole and I sweep lose earth with the blade of my hand to cover it. Four inches to the left, I repeat the process, and then again, and then again, all the way down the fence line. The red cabbage have only just broken through the surface of the dirt in their seed trays, so it’ll be a week or so yet before I move them into the field where right now potatoes are living their final days before harvest. Parsnip greens are tall, and I mentally make note of which ones I want to leave to winter over before checking on the newly planted kale. Everbearing strawberries are still putting on fruit, and my daughter is occupied now lifting their leaves and excitedly yanking the plump red berries.
Cicada chatter rises and falls in the nearby tree canopy and again I stand to survey the land. Tent worms are killing an apple tree. Sunflowers stand tall in the afternoon heat. I see dead trees that need felling, weeds that need mowing, fence posts that need straightening, and job after job after job that lay before me. I have a plenty of time to ruminate, observe, and ruminate again, and will revisit writing again when cold winds blow. Maybe I will think back to this piece and feel foolish, but I will not be afraid to say I was wrong. My immediate terrain is so more much knowable, even if it is pocked with struggle and strain. To my left our gravel drive stretches off into the woods, and as I look off to the cool forest there is a flash in my mind of a hunter walking with his bow, and in this moment, I envy him.
March 15, 2015 § 21 Comments
“Protect your spirit, for we are in the place where spirits get eaten.”
– John Trudell
Spring is moving in quickly, more quickly than I might necessarily want. My arms are worn enough to keep me from complaining about the break from hauling and splitting firewood, and sleeping the night through instead of waking up at three a.m. to stoke the embers and add more fuel to the stove is a welcome respite. I am quite concerned however, that the season for collecting maple sap may be cut abruptly short. For the best syrup season, night time temperatures need to drop below freezing, and day time temperatures need to rise to just shy of forty degrees Fahrenheit. A week ago, nights were just above zero and days didn’t creep past twenty. This week, nighttime lows hover in the high thirties and the days are approaching sixty. Of course, this could be a fluke, and I don’t want to scream “climate change” with every strange localized weather event, but the songbirds seem to be dropping anchor for the season, and I am recording the details of this winter’s drastic waning in the ledger book of such things in my mind.
The arrival of spring brings for me a surge of energy as I feel life return to the above ground world from the root-balls and burrows where it slumbered during the frigid and dark portion of the year. Spring also brings with it a workload beyond what I ever have time for, so the energy I feel running through my limbs as the sun shines down on my jacketless body is quite a gift. I mention such things because as the days lengthen and grow warmer, I have commitments in the garden and about the homestead that keep me from writing, so this will likely be my last piece for a good while. Such a hiatus comes none to soon, as I feel I am running short on things to say for the present time.
Why do we seek such writing anyway? If you’re like me, you are reading this very piece as you drink your morning coffee or tea. You are mustering the wakefulness required to go about your daily activity, but before you do, you are washing your mind in a bit of confirmation bias concerning the state of the world. Everything is going to hell, and on a daily basis you check in with the news feeds and blogger community to peruse the latest data points that confirm what you already know: climate change is accelerating as superstorms and droughts increase in ferocity. The people in power are still maniacs insistent on walling themselves off from the public with cordons of brutish and overly armed police. People without power are still being brutalized when they stand up for their dignity or merely exist between a capitalist and a resource. Some species went extinct. Some rainforest was clear-cut. Some stretch of ocean was overfished, or used as a radioactive dump-site, or both.
Rise and shine, the world is right where you left it when you went to sleep last night. Now go to work.
A few days ago I asked a young man I know who works as a dishwasher in a deli, “Why do you get up and go to work every day?” He answered, “To pay the bills.” I then asked, “What would happen if you didn’t pay your bills?” “I would be evicted eventually,” he replied. It quickly became evident that I was engaging in an exercise more than I was asking sincere questions, and he quite happily humored me as we ran through the entire sequence of events that would follow his not paying his bills. There are the police who would serve his eviction and the consequences they would face if they refused to do so, the police chief who would fire them, the mayor that would fire him if he didn’t terminate non-compliant police, and on, and on down the line. It wasn’t a new line of thought for him, and after playing the game of hypotheticals, I asked him what was behind this whole machination of human dominoes that forces people to work doing things they hate, like washing dishes in a deli.
He said, “Money. Greed.”
I offered a different possibility. “There is a demon behind all of this, manipulating us. It is an invisible and nameless demon that is trying to eat our souls.”
He laughed. I told him I was serious.
Perhaps you don’t believe in demons. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that no matter how much we know, individually and collectively, no matter how much anger we harbor, no matter how much we hate what it is our bodies and minds are engaged in for hours at a stretch every single day, we still go and do it. Minute by minute, hour by hour, no one is standing there making us do anything. It is all internalized. We are obedient. We are docile. We are domesticated.
Here is where you jump in and interject that bosses and landlords and police and judges all are waiting in the wings to punish disobedience. Of course they are. I don’t disagree. But remember, there are more bosses and landlords and police and judges all waiting behind the first set to make sure they keep to the rules and continue the game of civilization uninterrupted. Though this is obvious I point it out for a reason: there is no one to kill. There is no one person who if eliminated would provide for us the opening we need to stop the insanity of industrial civilization and to build something new, something sane, something with the potential for longevity.
Thinking of such things reminds me of “The Grapes of Wrath.” In the story, Steinbeck writes a scene in which the agents of the landowners come to tell the tenant farming families that they have to leave.
“Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there-quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The tenant farmers are pushed to anger at the blamelessness and absurdity of their situation.
“We’ll get our guns, like Grampa when the Indians came. What then?
Well-first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.”
Steinbeck does a masterful job outlining the maddening and perplexing nature of our conundrum; people comprise the system, people act out their roles within the system, but people are not the system. So what the hell is the system? It seems so innocuous. It is rules. It is expectations. It is a series of triggers by which one human action results in an automatic response by another human who is just doing their job, and if they weren’t doing it, someone else would be. Of course, I am not trying to absolve any single person of the responsibility they bear for the actions that they individually engage in. I am however, interested in exploring the construction of the invisible forces that keep all of us participating in a system that we know is toxic to us physically and spiritually, as well as to the living planet at large.
It is so easy to blame the system. It’s just a word, and it is a stand in for the pieces and the whole of everything we see that is wrong with the way human society is behaving. Poverty? Blame the system. War? The system. Racism? The system. But what is the system? If it is just rules, expectations, and essentially stories that we tell each other, then why is the system so hard to change? Why is it so seemingly immutable? Why are we so damn helpless and ineffective at altering something so fragile, so simple, so made up? Could all of us really be so captured by something invented, something spoken into being and jotted down on flimsy pieces of paper? It’s as though we all began playing a game, only to realize that the game was playing us, and once begun there was no way to stop playing, even as we watched our movements destroy the world.
Maybe there is a demon after all. Maybe ignoring the demon, pretending it is not there endangers us further. Maybe the demon is an eater of souls, and its strategy is to diminish our power and our will through mindless labor, through a dulled existence of symbols and static, flashing lights and loud noises, addiction and poisonous food. Maybe for millennia, this demon has been slowly at work, gaining strength and refining its strategy, inserting its desires and ploys into our lives as politics, as capitalism, as war, as revolution, as status, as sex, as culture, as normal, as human nature.
Is it so hard to believe? Look around. Walk through a gas station. Look at the racks full of five hour energy bottles, E Cigarettes, scratch and win lottery tickets, chili cheese flavored corn chips, male enhancement pills, and thirty two ounce aluminum cans full of Monster and malt liquor. Step outside and see the fifty-foot glowing signs advertising Arby’s, Taco Bell, and some nameless pornography and sex toy megastore. Each establishment is serving up a small slice of death, of exploitation, of misery. Each storefront and corporate logo is masking a sweatshop, a slaughterhouse, a slave, an oil spill, another species gone from the Earth forever.
But we don’t believe in demons. We are too rational for that, too objective, too advanced. At least, that is the story we tell ourselves. But then I look around at the tortured landscape and the careless people moving through it who don’t seem to notice that they are traversing a spiritual wasteland, and I have to wonder.
Maybe when we go to the internet in the morning and look for the daily headlines and editorials, we are really looking for a friend, someone of like mind to join us in our knowledge and our fear of the events taking shape all around us that individually we are just too damn small to do anything about. Like office workers who jumped from the upper floors of the burning World Trade Center, we want someone with whom we can hold hands as we take the plunge into a future that has no good outcomes.
Or maybe, we are looking for hope, logging on and scrolling past link, after, link, after link until we find what we have been waiting for; a set of instructions. No more data points, no more statistics and measurements confirming what we already know, but a plan. For God’s sake, the catastrophe is spelled out in neon lights and it howls from a megaphone all day, every day. I have more awareness than my mind can bear, but what the hell am I, are you, supposed to do about it? We are so small. We are just one person. We are already late for work.
Step one: Protect your spirit, for you are in a place where spirits get eaten.
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.”
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.