This is the fourth in a planned series of articles by Steve Welzer
The question of “what you’ll be facing” would have been easily answered for ninety-nine percent of our species existence, during which human lifeways were relatively stable from generation to generation. Stable, though not static. People did have to accommodate to climate and other environmental/ecological changes. But those kinds of changes occurred over the course of tens or hundreds of thousands of years, so incremental lifestyle modifications sufficed.
There has been less generation-to-generation stability during the last one percent or so of our species existence—and considerably less during recent centuries. “What you’ll be facing” is now a function of two pivotal inflection points of human history. As we’ve detailed in prior notebook entries, the first was associated with the Neolithic Revolution and the ascent into civilization.
To review, briefly: As rising population densities became an issue, most human groups proactively controlled their numbers; but some, instead, turned to an intensive form of agriculture in an effort to support further population growth. The latter groups soon became dependent upon self-production of food. New issues then arose having to do with productivity, ownership of the produce, labor allocation, and exploitation—and those, in short order, had the effect of radically altering lifeways.
Groups adopting the New Ways (or having the New Ways imposed upon them) tended to become aggressive, patriarchal, and urban-centric. Whereas human social reality had always, heretofore, been based in familiar, self-sufficient, relatively egalitarian local communities (tribes or villages), adoption of the New Ways was characterized by the emergence of entirely new phenomena: (a) institutions which are large, centralized, remote, opaque, and impersonal—epitomized by the state; (b) complex economies involving an extensive, hierarchical division of labor; and (c) imperial-scale expansionism, oppression and subordination.
The New Ways came to predominate over a period of five millennia, leading to a second, very recent, historical inflection point. It was associated with the transition based on industrial development and globalized commerce. With this Second Great Transformation the accelerating trajectories of human population, production, consumption, depletion, and pollution went parabolic.
Grandchildren, this is what you’ll be facing.
And making sense of it (no less dealing with it) will be an unprecedented challenge. Just 200 years ago ninety-seven percent of people still lived in tribes, villages, or very small towns. Life for the vast majority was an amalgam of the Old Ways and the New Ways. Activities and aspirations were still mostly local and immediate. But life was not stable as had been the case under the Old Ways.
Village life was regularly threatened by disruption to the extent that it was subject to the vagaries of the statist, imperial and historical forces that loomed, menacingly, “above” and could wreak havoc at any time (via conscription and taxation; border, trade, and administrative shifts; the dislocations of wars and conquests). Since the ascent into civilization cities have been the locus of statism and history, of aggrandizement and imperialism.
Nonetheless, until very recently even cities were relatively human-scaled. In 1790 there were 30,000 people in New York. No city in the world had a population of a million. By 1950
there were 83 cities with populations exceeding one million. By 2007 the number had risen to 468 and fifty percent of all people lived in cities. During your lifetime, by 2030, that figure will be sixty percent and there will be over 30 megacities (metropolitan areas with a total population in excess of ten million people).
Hyper-urbanization is not reflective of a trend toward urbanity and high culture, but rather toward a social reality characterized by teeming masses, automobile congestion, air, water, and noise pollution; by 2030 three billion people in the world will be living in slums or shantytowns.
RISE OF THE TECHNOPOLIS
Since the industrial revolution, hypertrophy has come to characterize one sphere of human existence after another. But the monumental expansion of what Barry Commoner termed
the “technosphere” in relation to the ecosphere is arguably the most dramatic and problematic issue of our times. It’s more than a question of the proliferation of machinery.
Physical machines and the machine mentality have been central aspects of civilization since its inception. Lewis Mumford pointed out how ancient Sumer and Egypt organized society
itself into a vast “social megamachine.” Only in that way could pyramids and empires get built. David Watson notes that with industrialism we witness the rise of “the first global megamachine. . . The scientific and the industrial revolutions occurring in production and later in culture and consumption have managed to internalize the empire, wire it into subjectivity, in a way no previous form could. . . For the first time in history, the instrumental and economic transformation of the world has become the central cultural motive.
“Technology has replaced the natural landscape with the suffocating surfaces of the modern Technopolis [permeated by] a culture which tends toward the destruction of local communities and technics and toward the penetration of the megamachine into every aspect of life. . . It has been confused with machines and tools, when it is in reality a complex of social relations, a ‘web of instrumentality.’ The automobile, for example, was seen as simply a replacement for the horse and carriage, but mass production techniques combined with Ford’s new conception of mass distribution gave the automobile a significance that no one foresaw.
“Ford’s revolution actually came at the end of a long period of technical preparation. Mass assembly line production and interchangeability of parts dated back to the end of the eighteenth century. The expanding role of the state was also significant, since it was only the state which would have the means to create a transportation system based on the auto.
“Taking the automobile as an example, who can deny that technology creates its own inertia, its own direction, its own cultural milieu? Think how the automobile has transformed our
world, our thoughts, images, dreams, our forms of association, in just the span of a few generations. The automobile has uprooted our communities, undermined our farmlands, polluted our air, created a generalized ritual of sacrifice on the oppressive assembly lines and on the congested roadways.
But the automobile is only one invention of thousands. Who would have thought that within just a few decades of the invention of television [and personal computing devices] millions of human beings would spend more time staring into electronic screens than in any other activity?
“What is important is not a specific moment in the transformation of techniques, or that specific forms of technology were employed, but the overall process of massification by which simple, organic activities are wrested from the community and the household and appropriated by the megamachine. [Under its auspices] the green world in which we evolved is being shredded by our instruments, our way of life, our very rationality.”
[quotes taken from David Watson’s essays, “Against the Megamachine” (1981) and “Catching Fish in Chaotic Waters” (1995), both of which appeared in Fifth Estate]
BUT LAST YEAR WAS “THE BEST”!
Overall it’s a disconcerting reality. Humanity has built up to this aberration over time—very gradually at first, at a quickening pace after the Neolithic Revolution, and then at breakneck speed after the industrial revolution. Yet, despite an underlying disquiet in the elite centers, despite misery and breakdown at the periphery, the mystique of progress generally continues to prevail.
Dislocations, discontents, and technological exasperations are tolerated as statistics seem to indicate that life for a majority of people is getting better. Last December Zack Beauchamp published an essay, “Five Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History.”
People are living longer; there is (proportionately) less poverty; recently less war and violent crime.
This perspective can be confusing. First of all, some of the improvement in poverty, hygiene, health, and conflict data is only relative to the deplorable conditions of the early-civilizational period. It indicates that, in some respects—after millennia!—humanity is finally coming to terms with and learning to cope with the trauma of the transition to the New Ways.
This is all to the good. Yet, while progress has been made in certain areas, the human experience and impact in other areas has gotten more problematic. How “progressive” are the circumstances where increases in consumption come at the expense of accelerated ecological disruption? where transportation and communication advances expand our “domain of experience” to the point where we lose our grounding and complexity becomes overwhelming? where anomie and atomization escalate with increasing urbanism? where institutions tend to become ever larger and the successful economic enterprises become ever more dominant?
It stands to reason that at the point where rising trajectories are peaking there might be a sense that “things have never been better.”
But it should be understood that this is the viewpoint looking backward from the precipice. If growth and development are unsustainable, some year in the near future will be the ultimate “best ever” from the standpoint of the misguided values of hypermodernity. The folly of parabolic historical trajectories will soon after (at long last) become widely recognized.
Grandchildren, the third inflection point of our species history will be an unprecedented occurrence. The appropriate response will involve some kind of radical reorientation of our lifeways. It’s easy enough to talk about “the greening of society” or “transition to the Simpler Way,” but the implementation of those good ideas is not so easy. Unprecedented challenges await you.
. . . to be continued
Steve Welzer, a co-editor of this magazine, has been a Green movement activist for over twenty years. He was a founding member of the Green Party of New Jersey in 1997 and recently served on the Steering Committee of the Green Party of the United States. Steve holds a Masters degree in Economics from Rutgers University. He lives in East Windsor, New Jersey, and is pursuing a project to establish an ecovillage in that state.