Let’s Get Critical

April 2, 2014 § 8 Comments

“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”

HL Menken


To criticize the status quo is to invite volley after volley of personal criticism back in your own direction. I am sure this has likely been the case for a very long time, and I believe this may be partly due to the way in which humans learn through pattern recognition, as well as how the architecture of the human brain physically lays neural pathways to build understanding. Thus when an idea too astray from the usual is presented to the human mind, there is a high chance of a negative reaction because the new pattern is far too asymmetric for the current set of neural pathways to incorporate. That, or the derogator is a bored and obtuse malcontent with nothing better to do than shit all over other people on the internet.

I often write about the exploitation inherent in the model of civilization itself, and how this organizing framework which is dominant on the planet now is entirely unsustainable and will necessarily collapse catastrophically. This is some level nine stuff. By this I mean that if you have not been initiated, if you haven’t read about this topic or all of the feeder topics that lead to this conclusion, it would likely seem extreme. Thorough understanding of an issue requires prerequisite knowledge. We get to where we are by having been where we were, even philosophically and intellectually. Because my topics of critique often surround the civilization paradigm, its parts, and alternatives, I often receive flak from people which either demonstrates that they do not fully understand the gravity of the issues, or which merely indicts me as complicit in civilization’s crimes. The former generally comes in the form of people arguing that technology will remedy all of the converging crises faced and created by civilization. The latter is far more frustrating, as it is usually some pathetic attempt at a “got’chya!” moment where someone tries to defeat my greater thesis by pointing out my use of a computer or some other trapping of civilization. “Hypocrite!” they cry.

The hypocrisy claim is everywhere you find people critiquing any facet of the status quo. Antiwar activists who protested the Iraq war were called hypocrites for using gasoline. Occupy Wall Street participants were called hypocrites for using Apple products. My friends in forest defense have been called hypocrites for using paper. As an anti-civ anarchist I have been called a hypocrite for everything from having moved into a house during the winter, to having gone to the hospital when after forty hours of labor at home with a midwife, my partner was physically exhausted and wanted access to drugs so she could sleep. Every time these criticisms are leveled, it becomes a major energy suck to explain exactly how nonsensical they are. I would like to here dedicate this essay to shredding the “hypocrisy” argument once and for all, so it can forever be linked to by activists and social critics of all platforms and stripes, who neither have the time nor energy to swat at the many zombie hordes who become agitated when new ideas are presented to them which run counter to the comfortable patterns that they are used to, and who then proceed to scream “hypocrite!” in place of an actual counter argument.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people.” Despite my anti-civ analysis, I am no misanthrope. Civilization is a system of organization, a power arrangement in which a small few control the many. Using their power, these few exploit the lands and beings around them so they can grow their power and comfort at the expense of others. Industrial civilization takes this paradigm full tilt and is wiping out habitat and species at a mortifying rate. Understanding this does not cause me to hate my species, but rather to be eager to help them understand why we must pursue new organizational methods. Still, the uphill battle of convincing fellow humans, especially those who are net beneficiaries of this destructive and exploitative set of arrangements, can be at times an infuriating engagement. Of course, this is not because I need people to immediately agree with me, but if they don’t, I do prefer they focus on challenging the content of my statements as opposed to nit picking the content of my life.

In “The Fall,” Albert Camus wrote, “Everyone insists on his innocence, at all costs, even if it means accusing the rest of the human race and heaven itself.” I believe that it may be this personal insistence on one’s innocence which leads people to quickly cry “hypocrite!” at those who critique the status quo. Because we are all mired in this paradigm, when it is critiqued, some individuals feel that the critique is of them individually, likely due to a personal identification with the system. Thus critiques become personal attacks against which they must defend themselves. “If the system is guilty, then I am guilty, and I’m not guilty!

The need for personal innocence runs deeper. If a critique against an overarching paradigm such as a government, capitalism, or civilization itself seems irrefutable, this can invoke in some a certain need to then utilize this new information as part of their own personal ethos. The problem here, is that this will mean that person will feel compelled to act accordingly with this information, and the actions required may seem difficult, uncomfortable, or frightening. For instance, if you’re told that capitalism is exploitative because employers retain the surplus labor value generated by their employees, and you happen to be a business owner, this new understanding will mean one of two things: either you rearrange the operating model of your business to fairly compensate your employees for their labor, effectively making them cooperative partners, or you change nothing but must go through life recognizing that you profit off of the exploitation of others. Here, your internal need to perceive yourself as innocent, or at least to believe yourself a good person, will run counter with your open acknowledgement that you exploit people for a living. What to do then to keep the ego intact?

If the action required to fall in line with the new ethos created by accepting new information is too hard, too uncomfortable, or you just don’t want to do it, you must justify inaction. Justifying inaction will be achieved possibly by denying the veracity of the new information. Like most capitalists in this scenario, you could convince yourself that your entrepreneurial and risk taking spirit give you the right to take the surplus labor value generated by the people you employ indefinitely. Of course, the justifications are endless.

In some cases though, if the new information received cannot be deflected through argument or justification, and the need to preserve one’s picture of their innocence is too great, then calling into question the character or behavior of the information’s purveyor can also suffice. For instance, if an activist is working to halt fossil fuel extraction for the myriad reasons that such a halting would be beneficial, it can be difficult to disagree with this activist on a purely argumentative level. How could you? Deny climate change? Deny ozone killing trees? Deny the death and destruction from Alberta, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Niger Delta? On an argumentative level, you’d be wrong every time. However, you could call into question the activist’s use of fossil fuels, thereby deflecting the conversation, and basically insinuating that, as Camus also wrote in The Fall, “We are all in the soup together.” Because hey, if we’re all guilty, then none of us are guilty, am I right?

In the fall of 2012, I was in Texas working with the Tar Sands Blockade using direct action tactics to shut down construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. On the side of a highway north of Nacogdoches, I sat with some friends as our comrades were perched on platforms fifty feet in the air with their support lines tied to heavy machinery, effectively making the machines unusable lest their operators not mind killing these young people. There were a surprising amount of supporters for rural east Texas, but of course, there were plenty of people who made sure we we aware of their disdain for us. One such person passed by, slowed down, and said “I bet you used a pick up truck to get that stuff out here.” In his mind, this was a real zinger. I replied, “Of course we did. Why wouldn’t we?

There are a slew of reasons why this man’s comment contained zero validity as a critique of our action. For one, the gasoline we used did not come from that as of yet unfinished pipeline. Also, though I wouldn’t, I could claim to be against tar sands bitumen, but not conventional crude. But really the truth is that anti-extraction activists are making what economists would even defend as an intelligent bargain; using X amount of fossil fuels to prevent the extraction of a million times X. Of course I would use a tank of gasoline to prevent the daily extraction and transportation of hundreds of thousands of barrels of bitumen. Not only am I seeking a massive net gain for the ecology of the planet, I am also not using any more fossil fuels than I would have used had I gone to work that day anyway.

In the same vein, it is not hypocrisy to write a book about the ills of deforestation. Though it may be printed on paper, it has the potential to affect policy which will then lessen the total amount of deforestation. Not to mention, the loggers are going to log and the publishing company is going to publish. Using those resources to ultimately dismantle that destructive activity is actually the best use for them. So no, the person who posts on the internet about the ravages of mountain top removal coal mining or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas isn’t a hypocrite. They are cleverly utilizing the paradigm’s resources to expose its flaws to the light of scrutiny, in the hope that the consciences of people will be stirred to ultimately upend the paradigm itself. This is, in fact, the most ethical use of the resources generated by destructive industrial activity.

Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house is to be encouraged.

It feels ridiculous to even have to lay this out, but the “hypocrisy” barb is flung far too often and dismantled far too little. What’s worse, is that hypocrisy in this regard isn’t even being understood correctly. According to wikipedia:

Hypocrisy is the state of falsely claiming to possess virtuous characteristics that one lacks. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie. Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. Samuel Johnson made this point when he wrote about the misuse of the charge of “hypocrisy” in Rambler No. 14:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

Thus, an alcoholic’s advocating temperance, for example, would not be considered an act of hypocrisy as long as the alcoholic made no pretense of sobriety.”

This being understood, we can unequivocally state that a forest defense activist who prints pamphlets about saving tracts of woodland is not a hypocrite, unless they also claim to never use any forest products. Sure, there is a reasonable expectation that people who see a social ill will do their best to avoid adding to that ill, but sometimes the requirements of society horseshoe people into activity even they do not appreciate because the alternative options are worse or non-existent. Of course, this is where detractors will still claim that if an activist wants to save the forests, that they should cease using anything made from trees because consumer demand is behind all economic activity. Ignoring the obvious benefits of the trade off between printing five hundred pamphlets to save five hundred acres of woodlands, I think further disemboweling of this notion about consumer choice activism is also necessary.

Derrick Jensen writes about how he got in an argument with a man who accused him of being just as responsible for deforestation as Weyerhaeuser because he used toilet paper:

Here, once again, is the real story. Our self-assessed culpability for participating in the deathly system called civilization masks (and is a toxic mimic of) our infinitely greater sin. Sure, I use toilet paper. So what? That doesn’t make me as culpable as the CEO of Weyerhaeuser, and to think it does grants a great gift to those in power by getting the focus off them and onto us.

For what, then, are we culpable? Well, for something far greater than one person’s work as a technical writer and another’s as a busboy. Something far greater than my work writing books to be made of the pulped flesh of trees. Something far greater than using toilet paper or driving cars or living in homes made of formaldehyde-laden plywood. For all of those things we can be forgiven, because we did not create the system, and because our choices have been systematically eliminated (those in power kill the great runs of salmon, and then we feel guilty when we buy food at the grocery store? How dumb is that?). But we cannot and will not be forgiven for not breaking down the system that creates these problems, for not driving deforesters out of forests, for not driving polluters away from land and water and air, for not driving moneylenders from the temple that is our only home. We are culpable because we allow those in power to continue to destroy the planet. Yes, I know we are more or less constantly enjoined to use only inclusive rhetoric, but when will we all realize that war has already been declared upon the natural world, and upon all of us, and that this war has been declared by those in power? We must stop them with any means necessary. For not doing that we are infinitely more culpable than most of us—myself definitely included— will ever be able to comprehend.

He continues:

To be clear: I am not culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper. I am culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper and I do not keep up my end of the predator-prey bargain. If I consume the flesh of another I am responsible for the continuation of its community. If I use toilet paper, or any other wood or paper products, it is my responsibility to use any means necessary to ensure the continued health of natural forest communities. It is my responsibility to use any means necessary to stop industrial forestry.

I believe it is dangerous to convince people that their only power is in their purchasing decisions, because this relegates people to being mere consumers, not active citizens, let alone autonomous beings who define their own struggles, explore a diversity of tactics, and experiment to find new and effective measures for countering power. It also reduces all of society to nothing but customer transactions. Doing so ignores the power people have to protest, blockade, persuade, legislate, and sometimes, to overthrow. Would advocates of consumer choice activism stand by the idea that American revolutionaries should merely have boycotted tea, stamps and British products? Would they advocate that these revolutionaries should have instead of smashing windows, burning buildings, and fighting back against the crown have instead started their own competing tea trading companies? How about American slavery? Was the real solution that abolitionists and free blacks should have started competing fiber plantations in the north, hoping to push slave produced cotton out of business? Should we brand Captain John Brown a hypocrite for not wearing fair trade worker owned flax linen pants when he raided Harper’s Ferry seeking weapons with which to start a slave revolt? Preposterous!

Fighting against a behemoth industry that is interwoven into the state apparatus and has insulated itself as a central pillar of day to day operations is not something easily done. For one to claim they know exactly how to win such a fight is audacious. When it comes to the extraction industries, there is a large buffer where no matter how much the public cuts their consumption, the state will offset their financial losses through subsidies and purchases. The US government will happily buy discount oil for the fifth armored division after a civilian boycott lowers the price. Because of this, all forms of resistance are welcome and necessary, and it should be understood that attacking such a monolithic industry requires people hammering away, figuratively and literally, on every possible front. If it takes two million barrels of oil to power the cars and trucks necessary to organize the ten thousand strong blockade that cripples the refinery complex at the Port of Houston, well hell, oil well spent.

Those who demand lifestyle purity of anyone who ever raises a critique of any facet of the status quo are creating a double bind paradigm of hypocrites and extremists so to establish two camps into which they can then package critics in order to isolate and ignore them. The hypocrite camp is obvious. By misdiagnosing via a false definition someone who is against civilization as a hypocrite because they use electricity to write their thoughts online, these detractors can in their own minds, suggest there is no reason to take the critique seriously. But suppose the anti-civ critic did achieve lifestyle purity. Suppose that they lived in a wigwam in the woods that they constructed themselves from branches and deer hides. Imagine that this person walked to the center of town every weekend in haggard clothing they had pulled from thrift store dumpsters and then this person stood on a bench to shout about the ills of industry and hierarchy. Is it likely that this person would be taken seriously? Of course not! They would be labeled an extremist. Passersby would write this person off as insane before listening to argument one. There is no middle ground in this double bind, and that is the point. Those who would cry from the wilderness about the death and the misery that civilization brings will forever be stripping more and more from their lives in a futile effort to gain recognition, to be valid in the eyes of those who called them hypocrites, until one day they are branded as lunatics, if they are not unheard and unseen, exactly as their detractors want them to be.

On this, we should remember too, that there are people who have achieved this lifestyle purity. They are the tribal peoples around the world who never have been drawn into the net of civilization. They are the global poor who do not benefit from the burning of coal or the sinking of copper mines. And their voices consistently go unheard. In fact, their voices are almost ubiquitously silenced. What do the defenders of the status quo say to the Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã peoples who are fighting the construction of the Belo Monte dam which threatens their survival? What do the defenders of the status quo say to the animals and plants who have been nothing but victims in the story of human progress? There is no inconsistency in their lives. No iPhone to scoff at, no power tool, no window fan. What is the excuse for denying their right to live? What is the excuse for exterminating them and pretending it isn’t happening? Why is it OK to deny their pleas?

Analysis and critique precede action. Without first understanding a system and describing its flaws, it will never be repaired or replaced. To assert that one must excise themselves from a system prior to criticizing it is asinine, especially so when the system being criticized is a global power structure with tentacles in almost every geographical region. Such assertions if considered legitimate would render critique impossible. They are also so implausible as to essentially be nothing more than a dismissal of critique, a backhanded way of saying “Shut up!” To be sure, the horrors of the dominant culture always have required a silencing of those it would make victims, so such behaviors amongst the denizens of civilization should come as no surprise, but they have never been and will never be intellectually or academically valid.

If you are in a prison, eating the food from the cafeteria does not mean you accept being a prisoner. Likewise, if you are a prisoner and you detest the prison and the system that put you there with every fiber of your being, you are not a hypocrite for allowing the prison doctor to treat you. Navigating life in a system of dominance, violence, and control is difficult and miserable, and if you have any designs to resist, whether to organize others on the inside with you to demand improvement of conditions, or to dig a tunnel and to escape, staying well fed and healthy in the mean time will be necessary for your success. While you fight, while you resist, use what you must to survive, especially in light of the fact that not doing so will not bring down the walls around you.

With the ever worsening issue of climate change, on top of the issues of political rot, net energy decline, and economic sclerosis, there will be more and more critique and analysis of exactly how societies are breaking down and what people should do in response. With this will come wave after wave of nonsense rebuttal to muddy the waters. At least when the defense of the status quo defers to indicting the behavior of the critics themselves, we can likely presume that their critiques are probably accurate, or at least that the status quo defender has no legitimate argument. For if the detractor had a legitimate counter analysis, they would present it. Attacking the messenger is behavior of the beaten. If I say “we need to abolish fossil fuels because they cause too much ecological damage” and someone responds “but you use gas in your chainsaw,” they have not displayed that my statement is untrue. In fact, there is a tacit admission that what I am saying is true, they just want to drag me down into the muck as if I’m not already standing in it.

Yes, I am knee deep in the shit of global industrial capitalist civilization. Yes, circumstances have me dancing from rock to rock, doing my best to avoid participating in the destructive protocols of the dominant culture and obliging to where it makes strategic sense to do so. Most people understand this. Most people understand the nuance between having and living an ethic in a complex world which leaves little to our individual control. Those who would deny this reality in order to deny your point are a nuisance at most. Hell is not other people, just other people in the comments section on the internet.

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.”

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

A Digital Whimper

February 25, 2014 § 4 Comments

There is so much noise that it becomes difficult to stay focused. The constancy of information, of news, of propaganda, of gossip. Our minds are drowning in a sea of chatter. We choke on it as it updates every second on a TV screen or an RSS feed. Everywhere you go, people staring at their smart phone, scrolling, scrolling. Next. Next. Next. Ironically, no one doing, no one reacting. No one digesting the information and then using it as a starting point for action. Information reduced to just another product for consumption, it is dumbed down, simplified, stripped of meaning and value and made into to the mental equivalent of a cheese poof. Every human tragedy reduced to a status update. Every reported environmental catastrophe reduced to a one hundred character tweet. Follow the end of the world at hash-tag “digitalwhimper.” Like it. Reblog it. Scroll down.

Afloat in an ocean of noise, we filter, and our filters are born of our biases and our priorities. Terrence McKenna said that culture is our operating system. The dominant culture is a lot of things in its complexity, but I think it is fair to say that one of it’s primary components is that it is anthropocentric. The dominant culture puts humans at the center of existence. Of course, there are layers of nuance involved in which the lifestyles and comforts of some humans are prioritized over the well being of others. To be sure, the dominant culture has a tiered hierarchy of valuation of flesh, with white flesh prioritized over nonwhite. Human flesh, however, always trumps nonhuman, with the anthropocentrism of the dominant culture casting non-human life as non-sentient, non-feeling, non-autonomous. To the dominant culture, there is no web of life, no complex interplay between co-dependent species all with value unto themselves, all existing within their own right to be respected and treated as one living family. As far as the dominant culture is concerned, there is humanity and everything else is either the feedstock of industry, or it is in the way.

We’re trained to filter anything that suggest otherwise.

There is this conception in the US, and likely in other western nations, that commerce, civic life, and “business as usual” have a right to exist unimpeded. Protests and strikes that flare up, no matter how minor, that slow traffic, block public transit, or – gasp! – prevent people from going to work or shopping are lambasted by the worker bee populace. How dare some protester block a bus full of Google or Amazon employees! An orchestra of miniature violins wail like mothers clutching dead babies for the innocent victims of such tepid social disruption. I find myself repulsed at first by the complete and utter lack of anti-authoritarian fervor found in the average worker who is just so eager to be on time to grind away making some other person rich, and second I am reviled by the entitlement of these self proclaimed “productive members of society” who seem to believe with religious intensity that by clocking their eight hours, that they are doing God’s work.

These potentates of the church of capital trot out the same old tired harassments calling on protesters and activists to “get a job,” which is of course, demanding that they stop impeding the big game of capitalist society and instead play along and lend a hand generating higher quarterly returns for some shareholder somewhere. Almost always this “get a job” mantra is absolutely non-sequitir to the demands of activists, but of course, a valid rebuttal would require an examination of the issues at hand, and that would require a moderate amount of effort. Shouting a meaningless slogan feels like arguing, but is much easier and leaves all of ones biases in tact, so it is the tactic of choice for those who want to defend the status quo while leveling an attack on people who ironically will usually have the general public’s best interests at heart.

To be sure, it’s easy to get bogged down in the sludge of insults, ignorance, and outright obfuscation that passes for discourse in this society. Sometimes I catch myself engaged in a pointless conversation over some political viewpoint, and I have to return myself to my primary premises. Years ago I came to accept that without a healthy living ecosystem, nothing else matters. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was in my late twenties when I had finally come to such an obvious conclusion. It should have been self evident, and likely was, until years of noise and propaganda promoting the dominant culture and it’s primary objective of production and growth with humans at the center of existence clouded my thinking. It took many elders wiser than I as well as many writers more clear thinking to assist me in regaining my sanity. A sentence helped it all fall into place:

The needs of the natural world outweigh the needs of the economic system.

This premise from Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame” should have been a no-brainer. Without a foundation on which to survive, why hash out the intricacies of social interaction?

The overwhelming majority of political discourse completely disregards this fundamental truth. In fact, this fundamental truth is treated with outright scorn, and according to the dominant culture, the natural world exists solely for the exploitation of humans. Anyone who gets in the way of this exploitation is impeding the primary directive of the dominant culture to engage in production and growth, and must be removed by any means necessary. For indigenous cultures, this has generally meant genocide. For a white activist blocking a city bus or a bulldozer, it generally means a cascade of effects starting with public ridicule and leading to and through violent arrest and imprisonment while gleeful wage slaves look on. Containment of anti-capitalist energy is completed by the media which reinforces the mindless “critique” of the “get-a-job” crowd by proclaiming from their position of power and privilege the valid method of demanding redress of grievances: Petition leaders and vote. While waving the banner of democracy, the public is consistently corralled into ineffectual and morale sapping activity by the media who are but highly paid P.R. staff of the powerful. As this cycle repeats and the livestock populace becomes more and more complacent in their powerlessness, the object of protest and picket and strike becomes more diluted.

Protest is not about awareness. Protest is not a commercial in flash-mob format. The goal isn’t to advertise to the consumer culture and hope that they are convinced to buy a particular point of view. Protest is about disruption. Protests and pickets and strikes and riots are weapons of the masses. We may not have any sway in boardrooms and government halls, but we can shut down ports and plants and if it comes down to it, we sure as shit can burn their precious banks and factories to the ground. We can pretend it matters to lock ourselves to the White House gate, or we can shred pipelines with angle grinders and blow torches before they are ever in the dirt. Refusing participation in the mechanisms of commerce, and further, preventing others from participating is the only real leverage that any of us have against the weight of the machine of industrial civilization. Make no mistake, productive members of society are the problem. The only reason this thought is remotely uncomfortable is because we know that we are all trapped in the belly of the beast we are trying to slay. We understand that everyone is trapped in a deadly paradigm, and that we must reconcile deconstruction of that which destroys us with survival in the present. But there is no alternative. Inaction is acquiescence to the horrors which totalitarian capitalists will inflict upon us. Business as usual must grind to a halt. So long as the sum total of the machinations of capital and state are violence and repression, we must bind and hinder as many working arms and legs of this machine as we can.

In the deluge of static the meme of human supremacy is constant. The premise that humans are at the center of existence, while not always articulated so plainly, underlies almost all current politics and philosophy. In discussions that range in focus from ecology to economics to technology, the foundational premise is essentially that human beings are masters of their destiny and that what we ultimately choose to create as our collective destiny will necessarily manifest as so. The logic to such thinking is that humans possess the only consciousness and will in our sphere of existence, so any course of action deriving from human will is necessarily just, because the consent of any other consciousness is impossible. This logic also presumes that the planet is a non-sentient mechanism of complex yet conquerable systems. According to the dominant culture, anyone who considers the planet alive is crazy, and to be dismissed. Further, anyone who considers the sentience and inherent value of non-human beings is crazy, and to be dismissed. Further still, anyone who doubts the intellect and ingenuity of technological humans is crazy and to be dismissed.

Even many radicals and activists fall for these premises. Examining the taxonomy of even many anarchist labels, the presumption inherent in their descriptors is that our primary grounding will be in how we interact with each other. Anarcho-syndaclism and anarcho-communism, for example, have within their monikers a genus and a species that proclaim a philosophy of egalitarian human organizing and some form of cooperative work and exchange. Anarcho-transhumanism implies a human centric philosophy focused on the necessity of transcending our biological status. This is the essence of the dominant culture’s drive merely stripped of the baggage of hierarchy. Of course there is reason to contemplate how exactly we should best organize with one and other, and I think anarchism contains within it the most value and potential, but devoid of an analysis of where and upon what foundations we will be doing this organizing, the philosophy becomes moot. Any political philosophy that forgets or intentionally avoids the naked reality that without a healthy ecosystem we die, is useless. Any political philosophy that cannot face the reality that humans need habitat and that humans are increasingly destroying habitat, is just more useless chatter.

Anthropocentrism is a sickness of ego that holds the uninfected hostage to watch while the living world is plundered and killed. Those infected with this malady of ego are held fast and tight within a narrative about who we are and what our collective destiny holds. Daily this narrative is fleshed out by Hollywood as images of constant technological progress are manifested by graphical wizardry, while simultaneously, the rot of civilization grows. The media plays its part, singing the songs of where we are going with new hits about mining asteroids and golden oldies about free energy just around the corner. It matters not that green revolution technologies are rapidly destroying topsoil while every year relying more heavily on stronger poisons. It matters not that billions of humans are sustained by trading dwindling hydrocarbons for food calories. It matters not that overuse of antibiotics has spawned new treatment resistant bacteria at such a rate as to prompt an Assistant Director at the CDC to declare that, “We are at the end of anti-biotics, period.” None of this matters to the devotees of civilization and human greatness because, because, well, look at our slick new smart phones! The ability to download an app which will alert you to how many people in the room are interested in screwing a stranger is supposed to be proof that we can invent our way out of the toxicity that hundreds of years of industry and thousands of years of agriculture have meted upon the planet.

Without a a cataclysmic shift in the industrial-civilization paradigm, we’re going to kill ourselves and a lot of other living beings all because so many people are in love with the story they are being told about themselves. For the few who attempt to bring about such a shift, there is the condemnation of the worker bees whose willful participation in the system is indicted by those who dare give a damn. Even if sent to prison for their actions, radicals have it better than the indigenous and the non-human who are extinguished with varying degrees of complexity. For everyone else, there are the texts, the selfies, the pop-culture news feeds, the addiction to regularly proclaiming your mediocre self to the world via social networking. While the oceans die and the atmosphere gasps, we ride the wave of noise lost in our greatest technological accomplishment; a database of the mundane, a digital mirror into which we can continually stare at ourselves.

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