This is the third in a planned series of articles by Steve Welzer
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(Sarina, I just talked with your kindergarten teacher, and she’s as impressed with your ability to carry a tune as I am!)
My intention is to present you with these notebooks when you turn 16, hoping that you’ll read them over gradually sometime before you’re 20.
Here’s why I think that’s the ideal age to start giving consideration to these ideas: By age 30 most of us are fairly inured to the pathologies of our society. But at age 16 or 18 a sensitive individual still reacts viscerally. He or she doesn’t just pass by the sorry sight of a homeless person on the streets of a city, but rather experiences a mixture of chagrin and outrage, perhaps thinking at some level (maybe subconsciously): “What kind of society allows this?”
It’s an appropriate question, the kind that fosters deep inquiry. I believe the quest for an answer can lead to the central premise of these notebooks…that there have been two fundamentally different ways humans have lived.
In trying to convey the essence of the differences we’ve used various terms of counterposition: “Old Ways” vs. “New Ways”; Home vs. Leviathan; community vs. mass society. The conflation of the latter two concepts is an indication of how distorted perspectives have become in the modern world. Is there a community of “We, the American people”? Well, when people live in real community they don’t allow homelessness… and don’t allow many other phenomena that we, in this society, are encouraged to become inured to.
The familiar relationships of real community are just a step beyond those of extended family. It would be a very rare (and disturbed) family or community that would allow a member to live in unsupported squalor. Within the context of real community problems and issues are addressed in a personal and empathetic kind of way. Extreme disparities of circumstance would be (correctly) viewed as destructive of social cohesion.
Or: it would be considered pernicious to treat a neighbor as an exploitable “sales prospect.” Under conditions of mass society the way people deal with each other and treat each other is neither sensitive nor empathetic. It wouldn’t even be tolerable…if our sensibility was informed by a healthy value system.
It’s healthy when a 16-year-old asks: How could this be? And it’s productive when a 20-year-old asks (going a little deeper): How did this come about?
I hope you’ll be among the sensitive. If so, you’ll find it odd that, even as early manifestations of crisis become evident, many of your middle-class peers will be inclined to say that things are fine and times have never been better.
They might cite the achievement of high levels of life expectancy, education, income/net worth, travel and cultural opportunities, scientific knowledge, etc. They’ll be aware of the prevalence of poverty and disease in many peripheral countries, but they’ll adhere, as long as possible, to the common progressivist optimism about the future.
So, as you might be beginning to suspect, you’re going to encounter radically different narratives regarding “where we’ve been and where we’re going”…and it’s likely to be confusing. You’ll hear much about the idea of progress. Many of the problematic issues we confront in our lifeways, in our world, in geopolitics are viewed in the light of being “not-yet-resolved but soon-to-be as we march forward.” That narrative is buttressed through historical comparisons of the human condition. We compare our airy homes to the crowded tenements of the early twentieth century, our career opportunities to the “satanic mills” of the nineteenth century.
I remember in high school and college the feeling of pathos engendered by reading about the cruelty associated with the slavery of the ancient empires, the constant warfare between the early states, the diseases that ravaged the medieval cities. It was comforting to “know” how the progress that has raised most of us in the modern developed countries above such barbarism and affliction is the result of human ascendance through higher and higher stages.
That perspective had some validity when the comparison was confined to the historical period, i.e., the five millennia or so since written records have been available. The biological/ecological insights of the twentieth century are based on a longer-range view of things and argue for a re-thinking of the progressivist narrative. For example, they call into question the idea that the Neolithic Revolution was a beneficial advancement embraced by aboriginals due to the positive appeal of agriculture-based lifeways. Paleoanthropologists are still analyzing and debating the process, but the truth seems to be that humanity was forced to undertake that dramatic transition by the pressure of unsustainable population densities.
A HUMAN SPECIES-BLOOM
Prior to the Neolithic era advances in consciousness, culture, and technology had laid the groundwork for a human speciesbloom. What we know about a bloom is that it inevitably reaches a point where available resources become strained.
With the relatively sudden onset of a climatic cooling period (the Younger Dryas, twelve thousand years ago, lasting a thousand years) humans in several parts of the globe faced a crisis. From an ecological standpoint it would have been best to then limit population growth, and the likelihood is that many groups did just that. But some took a different pathway . . . in the direction of what we might think of as a “techno-solution” to the problem.
Rather than limiting their population they set out to augment their horticultural practices. And after some generations of refining techniques they succeeded. They developed a special form of agriculture which enabled them to generate food surpluses. In the process they transformed themselves and their societies. Looking back, using a mythopoetic lens, we might interpret that as a point of original hubris. For the first time humans had the audacity to contemplate taking full control of their environment.
In the Ishmael trilogy Daniel Quinn’s alternative narrative posits aboriginal humans as “Leavers.” Like all other species, they generally (at a macro level) left control of natural phenomena “in the hands of the gods”…i.e., their lifeways were, fundamentally, based on accommodation to natural ecological forces. With the transition to intensive agriculture, humans become Takers and strike a Faustian bargain.
In taking control they clear large swathes of land of all other species except the few that can be domesticated as food sources, beasts of burden or pets. They become Powerful in a way that no other species has ever been before. But, in some senses, they become domesticated themselves, become yoked themselves. They cross a line such that they become dependent upon self-production of food. In doing so they take on wholly unanticipated burdens and set in motion wholly new dynamics. The groups that had embarked upon the technological (rather than ecological) path were motivated to increase their numbers and their dominion.
Every additional laborer was a plus, every additional tillable acre an asset. Their surpluses fostered even higher population densities and more complex divisions of labor. A specialized military segment of the population enabled the obtaining of more land and more labor via conquest. And thus did all aspects of the New Ways develop and prevail.
The ultimate outcome was the near-universal adoption (or imposition) of that special form of agriculture—the aggressive, exhaustive, highly productive form that Daniel Quinn terms “totalitarian,” based on the destruction of all competition and the assumption of resource/produce ownership. Instead of limiting population growth, the human species had found a way to fuel its bloom.
WE’VE DRIFTED FROM OUR GROUNDING
As mentioned before, the life experience of an aboriginal individual was one of being embedded in a real community…of familiar people, flora, and fauna dwelling within a specific local place-on-earth. An identification with this home-place was integral to an individual’s own identity. It grounded him/her psychologically. Within it his/her domain of experience was bounded and appropriately scaled. Social relations were stable, personal, and empathetic. We evolved for living within that context, but the New Ways ruptured all organic boundaries and fostered aberrant value systems.
To the ears of a modern person “bounded,” “limited,” “local” tend to have a negative connotation. The modern mindset is expansive. It perceives virtue in the overcoming of limits. There is pride in being able to “handle so much,” know so much, produce so much, have so much. Pride that “the sky is the limit” . . . travels, imaginations, desiderata should be unbounded. We have arrived at this mindset on the basis of a five-millennium process of drifting ever-farther from our original grounding in nature-based/community-based reality.
During that period of time we’ve been focused on gains made in select areas such as science, technology, and productivity, but there has been relatively little appreciation for what we have lost. The losses have occurred incrementally, almost imperceptibly (as with the case of the frog in the pan of water being slowly heated). In future notebook entries we’ll discuss in more detail the losses of such things as autonomy, intimate caregiving, participatory cultural expression and social decision-making, peace and quiet, psychological stability.
HYPERTROPHY OF MODERN LIFE
Here I want to make a case that we’ve lost our bearings. How else to explain our failure to recognize the general hypertrophy of modern life? Our standards of consumption, the distances we routinely travel are egregious. The size of our institutions is prodigious.
Perhaps we dimly sense that the degree of complexity of modern life has become untenable. The sheer number of things (stuff ), people, processes, technologies to know about or keep track of is overwhelming. Our attention is pulled in too many directions. We face too many choices, obligations, distractions, learning curves to climb, “hoops to jump through.” Our domain of experience has been extended beyond any criterion of human scale.
How could it be otherwise if we’re now living in a “global village”?! Five millennia of “development” have led to the current condition—which Charlene Spretnak calls “hyper-modernity”— where all is pathologically large-scale, complex, abstract, and synthetic.
What is called for, Spretnak says, is a “resurgence of the real,” along the lines of our original grounding, enabling a restoration of ecological and social sanity. But, if I’m interpreting her correctly, Spretnak is not calling for us to “go backward.” It’s not a question of trying to re-establish the Old Ways. It would be impossible to do so even if there was some kind of consensus favoring it. For one thing, there would have to be a reduction in the human population so radical as to cause severe cultural dislocation over any short- or mediumterm period of time. (Moreover, it’s not as if aboriginal peoples necessarily and always lived ecologically—there’s no virtue in romanticizing them.
Undoubtedly, the Old Ways were more in touch and we can surmise that aboriginals “had a better feel for” nature than do moderns. Nonetheless, some aspects of the original crises—those that would eventually pressure aboriginals into adopting the New Ways—were due to misguided ecological praxis.) No, the idea is not to “go back.” Rather, our goal should be to take advantage of the lessons that we’re learning through analyzing those early crises, the agricultural revolution, the ascent into civilization, and the transition into modernity.
Arriving now at a Turning Point where we’re facing new and more comprehensive crises, it can be hoped that we are in the process of developing a conscious ecological sensibility that will enable us to go forward into the “Third Stage,” the Ecozoic Era. It could be achieved by appreciating the full story of where we’ve been, what we’ve gone through . . . and then crafting what David Watson calls an enlightened “synthesis of the primitive and the modern.” But we need to start moving faster in that direction. The limits of the “techno-solution” of ten thousand years ago are becoming evident. Daniel Quinn notes that more food does not resolve the issues associated with a species-bloom, it only postpones their resolution.
If a bloom is allowed to fully play out it will eventually consume its resource base. A condition that thousands of years ago was characterized by local crises of unsustainable population density has become a generalized, globalized Crisis of congestion, depletion, pollution, and cultural breakdown.
A visitor from another planet might report back that the phenomenon of bloom seems to have driven the human race crazy. If we don’t soon consciously and deliberately deal with all its consequences and ramifications, the result will be ruination for us and mass extinction for other life forms on the planet.
…to be continued