A few years ago I asked a friend, “If you could live at any level of technology, what would it be?”
My friend can be a curmudgeon. He was in one of those moods. He said, “That’s a stupid question. We can fantasize about living however we want, but the only sustainable level of technology is the stone age. What we have now is the merest blip—we’re one of only six or seven generations that ever have to hear the awful sound of internal combustion engines (especially two-cycle)—and in time we’ll return to the way humans have lived for most of their existence. Within a few hundred years at most. The only question will be what’s left of the world when we get there.”
He’s right, of course. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any social system based on the use of nonrenewable resources is by definition unsustainable: in fact it probably takes anyone but a rocket scientist to figure this one out. Similarly, any culture based on the nonrenewable use of renewable resources is just as unsustainable: if fewer salmon return each year than the year before, sooner or later none will return. If fewer ancient forests stand each year than the year before, sooner or later none will stand. This is what we see, for example, in the collapse of fishery after fishery worldwide: having long-since fished out the more economically-valuable fish, now even so-called trash fish are being extirpated, disappearing into civilization’s literally insatiable maw.
Another way to put all of this is that any group of beings (human or nonhuman, plant or animal) who take more from their surroundings than they give back will, obviously, deplete their surroundings, after which they will either have to move, or they will dwindle. Our culture—Western Civilization—has been depleting its surroundings for six thousand years, beginning in the Middle East and expanding now to deplete the entire planet. Why else do you think this culture has to continually expand? And why else, coincident with this, do you think it has developed a rhetoric—a series of stories that teach us how to live—making plain not only the necessity but desirability and even morality of continual expansion—causing us to boldly go where no man has gone before—as a premise so fundamental as to become transparent? Cities, probably the defining feature of civilization, have always relied on taking resources from the surrounding countryside, meaning, first, that no city has ever been or ever will be sustainable, and second, that in order to continue their ceaseless expansion cities must ceaselessly expand the areas they must ceaselessly hyperexploit: the colonies. I’m sure you can see the problems this presents and the end point it must reach on a finite planet. If you cannot or will not see these problems, then I wish you the best of luck in your career in politics or business. Our studied—to the point of obsessive—avoidance of acknowledging and acting on the surety of this end point is, especially given the consequences, more than passing strange.
We don’t have to look to the future, however, to see why civilization is unjust and needs to come down. In 1837, pro-slavery philosopher William Harper wrote, "The coercion of Slavery alone is adequate to form man to habits of labour. Without it, there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no taste for comforts or elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization." More broadly, these "comforts or elegancies" that come about through the processes of industrial production require the expropriation of resources–called importation in polite society–from the colonies. Thus today people starve in India while former grainaries export tulips and dog food to Europe. People starve in east Africa while former granaries export lima beans to the centers of the empire. People starve in South America while former subsistence farms export coffee to the United States to fill Americans’ caffeine addiction.
Because people do not generally choose to starve themselves to death; because sane people do not generally destroy their own landbases; and because industrial production requires the importation of resources in order to continue, trade–no matter how unequal–is not reliable enough to allow one to base one’s way of life on it. The resources must be taken by force. Thus our long history of war. This was true in the beginning, about which the anthropologist Stanley Diamond wrote, "Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home," and it’s true today, when capitalist propagandist Thomas Friedman acknowledges, "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist–McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps."
Fortunately, because we as a species haven’t fundamentally changed in the last several thousand years, since well before the dawn of civilization, each new child is still a human being, with the potential to become the sort of adult who can live sustainably on a particular piece of ground, if only the child is allowed to grow up within the context of a culture that values sustainability, that lives by sustainability, that rewards sustainability, that tells itself stories reinforcing sustainability, and strictly disallows the sort of exploitation that would lead to unsustainability. This is natural. This is who we are.
In order to continue moving “forward,” each child must be made to forget what it means to be human and to learn instead what it means to be civilized. As psychiatrist and philosopher RD Laing put it, “From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subject to these forces of violence . . . as its mother and father, and their parents and their parents before them, have been. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality in our present age.”
What is required of each of us is that we unmake this normality.
Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Green AnarchyFiled in Essays