…On what you’ll be facing
This is the second in a series of articles by Steve Welzer
In my last notebook entry I mentioned that your lives will unfold during special times. We’ll be discussing that at length below, but, in a nutshell, here’s what I mean: The direction of many of the most fundamental trendlines of human history have arrived at a point of major transition, such that the conditions you’ll be facing will be unique and unprecedented.
There have been inflection points of historical direction before…from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age, from antiquity into the Medieval period, from the Renaissance into the Industrial Revolution. But what is underway now is more than that. Rather than just a modification or acceleration, we’re facing a radical break, a civilizational Turning Point [acknowledgement to Fritjof Capra for the term]. It will have many consequences and some are bound to be problematic.
Now, I don’t wish to saddle your young lives with pessimism. You’re full of hope and anticipation of opportunities. And you, as much as anyone, know that it’s not in my nature to be a gloomster. Our time together is spent playing games, enjoying the outdoors, focusing on fun. I think Fun should be one of the Key Values!
I won’t be giving you a lot of advice in these notebooks. My intention is mostly to help you orient yourselves in an increasingly disorienting world. But here I want to throw some in: Hand-wringing won’t solve any problems. Some sacrifice might be called for, but it would be presumptuous to think that our own Heroic Efforts will save the world. Let’s be modest and not burden ourselves in that way. Let’s remain open to joie de vivre.
E. B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
Here’s a related quote, paraphrased from Edward Abbey:
“Don’t burn yourself out. Be only a part-time crusader, a half-hearted zealot. Save the other half of yourselves for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the earth. It is just as important to enjoy it while you can. So get out there to places where the air is still clear and sweet … explore the forests, climb the mountains, run the rivers. Sit quietly for a while and contemplate the stillness of the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourself. Keep your brain in your head, your head firmly attached to your body, your body active and alive.”
The advice is sound. It’s not fair to the Being inside if you strain so much trying to solve the problems of the world that you neglect your own health and well-being. If you don’t nurture your soul, who will?
So value and cherish soma, fun, laughter, and love. Interact with others in a way that fosters those things, for you and for them. Try to stress the positive in your relations.
An inclination toward focusing on human deficiencies, folly, and frailty will lead you toward pessimism or cynicism really fast. Be accepting of human frailty by retaining a sense of humor (there’s another Key Value: Humor!). But realize that acceptance of individual idiosyncrasies and deficiencies is not the same as acceptance of the current human condition.
Facing a crisis, there is a tendency in our society right now toward denial and avoidance … a kind of striving to be sanguine. “Life will go on.” “People will be people.” “I’m OK, You’re OK.”
Or: we could be OK if we would adjust a little bit and detach a little bit and each tend to our garden.
Gardening is great. It’s green, local-practical, and therapeutic. It’s part of “the solution” because it’s life-enhancing. It’s a way to savor the world, which is all to the good … unless the savoring and local-preoccupation become reclusive, or self-nourishment becomes self-absorption.
We can wish the personal best for you and for me without avoiding the fact that there are some bottom-line truths that need to be faced.
The world does need saving.
* * * * * *
History is facing a Turning Point because some of its fundamental, longstanding trendlines are unsustainable. For example, think about a graph curve representing levels of production through time. For millions of years prior to the Ascent into Civilization it was fairly stable at a low level, as humans mostly lived off the bounty of nature. Reliance upon self-production of food and other necessities of life is a relatively recent phenomenon dating to the period of the Neolithic Revolution, about ten thousand years ago.
Since then, as one social unit after another adopted agriculture and division of labor, the “gross world product” has risen steadily. The curve has gone parabolic (accelerating rate of increase) since the inception of the Industrial Revolution. A corollary has been that the related curves representing population and consumption growth have also gone parabolic.
Such trendlines were viewed as manifestations of a beneficial process of progress and development until very recently. Now we are starting to re-think those notions as we realize that along with accelerating production, population, and consumption have come accelerating levels of pollution and resource depletion. What kind of progress has it been if we now find ourselves on the brink of a global unsustainability crisis?
HOW WE’VE GOTTEN TO THIS POINT
Early consciousness of the looming Turning Point preceded its materialization by decades. For example, all the trendlines were still rising without constraint when Earth Day was inaugurated in 1970. Atmospheric carbon levels, aquifer draw-downs, soil depletion were not yet fetters on growth, not yet immediate concerns. Some were starting to discern Limits to Growth, as well as the spiritual bankruptcy of an “affluenza”-plagued lifestyle, but most people (in western nations) were still absorbed with the pursuit of abundance.
Future historians likely will date the beginning of the era of the Turning Point to this century, the 21st, your century. Its implications will color your lives and, even more so, those of your children and grandchildren. Civilizations have declined before, but this will be the first time such has been a global phenomenon. The situation will frighten many people and cause unpredictable social reactions. An understanding of how we’ve gotten to this point and where we might consider going from here could help with the challenges of coping and enlightened decision-making.
As I try to help you think about the process and its implications I’ll be using four key terms in ways that might not be so familiar to you:
1. DUALITY. The specialness of human life is characterized by a number of related dualities, such as: body/mind, nature/culture, society/state, aboriginal/civilized.
2. LIMITS AND BALANCES. The ecological implication of these common words is profound, as we’ll see.
3. HYPERTROPHY (abnormal enlargement or excessive growth). Things can get out of balance when limits are disregarded, resulting in some aspects or dimensions becoming hypertrophied.
4. LEVIATHAN. If things get very out of balance they can become monstrous. We will be referring to modern society in this way.
Clearly these indicate a countervailing perspective, one that calls into question the notion of “progress.” We’re going to make the case that the latter has been a mystique of the historical period. We can start by reflecting upon the duality between pre- and post-Neolithic lifeways.
TWO DISTINCT WAYS OF LIVING
For millions of years the experience of most humans was grounded in their tribal community … a stable group of people living together interdependently; within a bounded, comprehensible territory; alongside familiar fauna and flora; attuned to accustomed natural cycles … all felt to constitute Home.
What I’m going to call the Old Ways [after Gary Snyder] were basic, simple, and straightforward. People lived off the bounty of nature as did the animals around them. People had no more conception of development, exploitation, or ownership than did the animals around them. Life was characterized by a limited, manageable domain of experience. People weren’t “going anywhere.” There was no teleology or sense of linear history.
But humans were a successful species. The populations of successful species tend to rise — up until the point where density strains available resources. For most species, at that point, population growth terminates. Humans solved that “problem” through adaptability. Tribes split, with migrants setting off for new territories, learning to live in less-favorable environments where necessary. Most individual tribes did not expand their territorial boundaries, but there was a general human diffusion due to out-migration — first from Africa into Eurasia, eventually into all habitable areas of the planet.
As broad areas started becoming “full” of people (full relative to resources) population growth tended to moderate. But over time people learned the arts of cultivation and found that if they augmented the bounty of nature through self-production of food they could support ever-higher population levels. We can conjecture that crises developed when they became dependent upon horticulture to support populations that otherwise would not have been supportable…and then discovered how difficult it is to assure adequate harvests year-by-year.
The situation created a stress, under the pressure of which human behavior started to change. Once sustenance and security depended upon adequate harvests, new lifeways developed. A more complex, structured, disciplined mode of social organization was required. Productivity became a value. Control of the provision and safeguarding of the harvest became issues. Self-production entailed considerably more work than had basic hunting/gathering.
BOUNDARIES BURST ASUNDER
Tribal peoples had often skirmished due to the felt need to be vigilant about defending what they considered to be their territorial boundaries. But they rarely engaged in wars of conquest; there was little to be gained. Under the New Ways, conquest could yield additional arable land and the conquered could be put to work. Tribal limits and boundaries were ruptured by wars of conquest and the world became something of a free-for-all.
Groups had to set up military defenses or face the prospect of being conquered. Technological development was spurred, both by the need for maximal harvests and by the striving for martial superiority.
Under these conditions it became clear that the human capacity for technological development is nothing short of awesome. What was created was impressive. Domestication and irrigation were mastered. Innovations proliferated. Organizational efficacy leapt ahead.
AND THE HARVESTS DID GROW
As is the case with any species, if the food supply is abundant the population will increase. A cycle of more food more people was established and has persisted to this day. Also established as a trend, under the pressure of competition and vulnerability, was a shift toward an increasingly aggressive-defensive, controlling character structure. This took cultural forms (like walled cities) and it became manifest in individuals. Original simple interest in growing some crops developed into aspirations to fully control the land. Agriculturalists cleared it of all other flora and fauna (viewed as “weeds” and “pests”). They felt a sense of ownership toward the produce. Issues arose about its allocation. The striving for More and the striving for dominance became factors within and between communities. Power elitism developed. Cities became power centers and then imperial centers.
All in all, within a very short period of time from the standpoint of natural history, the human species transitioned from one way of living to another: from gathering to production; from tribe/village to city/state/empire; from cyclicality to progression; from stability to development; from egalitarianism to class division; from personal to institutional relations.
From Home (familiar community living close to nature) to Leviathan.
(to be continued)