Most of the sky was clear and starry, but ten miles out to sea there was a cluster of clouds filled with lightning. I was anchored peacefully behind a low island that afforded me a perfect view of this dramatic spectacle. Sitting on the foredeck with my back against the mast, I sipped some hot sake and marveled at this exquisite display. Each burst of sky fire was contained within an individual cloud. Some would erupt in amber-colored brightness and others would shimmer in soft silver or lavender. The almost Japanese lantern quality of the clouds sparked a memory within me that I struggled to recall. A second cup of sake unlocked the remembrance vault, and the incident drifted back. It was a good one.
About a year earlier AVENTURA was nestled in a pristine cove with a few Indio houses scattered on the shore. One afternoon I heard the nearby children chattering enthusiastically about something. I took my binoculars topside and aimed them towards the commotion. The father was draping a fresh snakeskin over the low branch of a tree. My guess was that the kids were so excited because they would have fresh snake for dinner that evening. But my guess was delightfully wrong.
When nightfall arrived, the clearing around their little house filled with lightning bugs. That was a normal occurrence, but soon the little fireflies discovered the snakeskin, and slipped inside. Their pale neon green illumination created an eerie but magnificent tubular lantern. The children laughed with almost feral joy as they danced around this strange, blinking totem.
Watching this lightning now - and recalling those children then - was the catalyst for a slow, gentle, rice-wine contemplation of those qualities of human existence that are enduring and elemental as opposed to those that are temporary and superficial. I wondered how many generations ago that Indio family had discovered that lightning bugs were attracted to snake skins. And I pondered how many generations into the future that folk wisdom would endure. But the more profound question that I considered was whether these self-reliant indigenous people would remain long after the hyper-dependent gringos had vanished. If so, it seemed like poetic and ethical justice.
As the modern world careens from one catastrophe to another, a rarely-questioned phrase keeps appearing in print and in conversation. Here is an example of it in common usage: “If the gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps deepening, the thin veneer of civilization could easily be torn apart.” Allow me to question the foundation of this aphorism that we accept so readily. The implication is that if certain societal conditions deteriorate, then huge numbers of people will revert to their natural, uncivilized state which is immoral savagery. I don’t just beg to differ, I insist on differing.
The living arrangement that we refer to as Civilization with a capital C, only arose about 10,000 years ago with the advent of Agriculture with a capital A. The hallmark of this change was that these Neolithic people began domesticating a few crops and a few types of animals. Prior to this, everyone survived through hunting and gathering. And this mode of living did not just span 10,000 years - it lasted for about 10,000 generations. Mostly, it was small bands of about 50 people who lived a co-operative existence where everyone shared the blessings that nature provided. Obviously, if the ethical code of these Paleolithic humans had been immoral savagery, they would not have survived for 200,000 years.
For many decades white male anthropologists tried to convince the world that indigenous people were merely sub-human primitives who deserved to be subdued by the superior white race. They did so to justify the slaughter of millions of First Peoples whose lands and resources were also stolen. So who are the “immoral savages” in such a scenario?
And if such hideous genocidal conduct is not bad enough, let’s examine the way of life of those who were conquered, and compare it with the lifestyle of those who destroyed them. I’ll begin by describing some of the characteristics of tribal living:
· The First peoples understood that Life is a web and all of the interlocking strands are essential to the integrity of the whole. They realized that the geometry of Earth is not a pyramid with humanity at the apex - ordained to rule over all else Instead, they knew that the well-being of their brother and sister creatures and of the forests, rivers and jungles that cocooned them, were of vital importance to the entire planetary dance of life.
· There was superb equality amongst the sexes with the women fully involved in the decision making.
· They understood the wisdom of limits. They did not deplete their hunting and foraging grounds, they limited their population, and they killed only when it was imperative for their survival. They embraced a life of harmony with their neighbors rather than hegemony over them.
· Indigenous tribes were not divided into rulers and ruled. And there were no rich and poor. All shared equally in the spoils of the hunt.
· These people were phenomenally fit and healthy as revealed through modern archaeology and as verified by the anthropologists living amongst the several dozen tribes that have escaped extinction. In fact, after only a few centuries of agriculture, the human skeleton had shrunken by about 6 inches because they switched to a cultivated grain diet rather than the mixed protein, fat and vegetable Paleolithic diet.
· They are blissfully happy - as the contemporary anthropologists report. Because they are in such harmony with each other and with the natural world that sustains them, they always feel like they are “home.”
Now let me contrast that hunter/gatherer culture with how daily living arrangements changed after the arrival of Agriculture - or what I more accurately call “Conquest Agriculture.” I prefer this derogatory term because the early Neanderthals used a “scorched earth” farming practice of destroying anything that was a threat to their crops or domesticated animals.
When big C Civilization arrived, it brought domestication not just to crops and farm animals, but also to the average person. Instead of being wild and feral and self-sufficient, humanity was reduced to dependency and servitude. This was instituted through “division of labor.” Instead of everyone knowing how to feed and clothe and shelter themselves, people were obligated to specialize in just one skill. The vast majority tilled the fields, while others made tools or pottery or baskets - or in the case of the military – they made dead people!
What also arrived with division of labor was hierarchy of power. Suddenly rulers appeared, and unfortunately, those at the top did not achieve that status by being the wisest and most compassionate. They gained prominence by being the most ruthless and immoral. To enforce their edicts, standing armies arrived on the scene. The elites were also served by a class of courtiers or middle managers. And finally the new phenomenon of “priests” appeared. They quickly realized that they could attach themselves to kings or pharaohs for mutual benefit. The religious potentate could demonize certain groups of people to justify their imperial conquest by the secular leader and his army.
So, the hunter/gatherer’s life of free-roaming self-sufficiency was soon displaced by mud-hut, impoverished slavery. Thus from the very outset it was a disastrous development for the vast majority of people. And now let me list some of the historical legacies of Civilization as it wreaked its havoc down the centuries. This is an utterly staggering inventory of pathologies that did not exist in the tribal societies that were exterminated, and is not found in the few dozen that have survived.
· Human Sacrifice
· Chronic Loneliness
· Industrial War
· Homicidal Dictators
· Heart Attacks
· Atomic Bombs
· Diseases of Civilization
· Suicide Bombers
· Drug Addiction
· Robot Soldiers
· Junk Food
· Sweat Shops
· Disparity of Wealth
· Sexual Deviancy
· Child Molesters
· Serial Killers
· Compulsive Consumption
· Extinction of Species
It is hard to imagine any rational human being reading that list of atrocities and not saying to themselves, “Why have these consequences of Civilization never been brought to my attention?” That sensible question brings us back to the title of this essay: “The Thick Façade of Civilization.” Here is the standard dictionary definition for the word “façade”: “an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant reality.” Civilization is so toxic to human and animal and planetary well-being, that its true nature must be hidden from people.
And those in charge of the planet – the gatekeepers – or what I prefer to call The Malignant Overlords – do an extraordinary job of keeping that knowledge suppressed. You will never hear “the Downside of Civilization” discussed in the mainstream media or from pulpits or in the classroom. Therefore, the possibility of modern mass society reforming itself backwards towards a more holistic mode of living lightly and sustainably on the Earth is nearly impossible. Even when a major political or economic system is abandoned because of its uselessness, the underlying foundation of Civilization is not allowed to be questioned.
My belief is that only if there is a planet-wide collapse, can the prospect of smaller, tribal-based communities re-emerge. That is why I have dedicated great effort to sharing and refining my concept known as the Sea Gypsy Tribe. (Here is the direct link.) But I emphasize that I do not desire this scenario, since it would involve a massive die-off. But if the worst should occur, I feel it wise to have some concrete strategy for rebuilding a world that might possibly bequeath our descendents Mozart without the Mushroom Cloud.
After a couple of hours of savoring the lightning-lush sky, the clouds dispersed and suddenly revealed a handsome, half-moon. Somehow it seemed like there was a message in its appearance. As I contentedly sipped my sake, I searched for some meaning. Then it jolted me. Perhaps the universe was reminding me of what is ephemeral and what is enduring. The magnificent lightning show represented the amazing, electro-hypnotic spell of Civilization. But it swiftly was gone. Whereas the moon rising, as it has done for millions of years, symbolizes that less transitory epoch, when humanity lived in harmony with the planet and its creatures and the inscrutable vastness beyond us.
And perhaps one day that era may return…
A nice thoughtful post. It's interesting how we apply the concept of civilized to always mean our way of doing things, even though the way we do things isn't always so civilized or humane.
I agree with the general sentiment of Captain Jason's essay, that we would be better off without agriculture and civilization, living in small groups and populating the earth thinly.
However, the idea that humans lived in conscious balance with nature is a myth. Humans like other animals maximize their numbers as a hedge against extinction and stop growing their numbers only when they run up against limits in the food supply. But food supplies fluctuate as does the climate and any kind of balance is temporary. The populations always lag the food supply. Hence when the food supply drops population numbers exceed the food supply and populations drop in response. The idea of humans in balance with their environment simply means that numbers are roughly in balance with their food supply. It does not mean that humans have no impact on the environment. Studies by archaeologists have shown that when humans first entered California, for instance, they ate all the big clams and the big fish first and after those were gone, the started eating smaller fish and smaller clams. That is, initially, they over-ate and then settled into a more modest routine. They did not maintain the environment in the same state it was in when they arrived. This is in any case impossible. The idea that you can have a pristine wilderness that has humans living in it is a myth. Humans will have an impact on any environment that they live in. It is like having beavers in your environment and asking them not to build dams. It is like having locusts and asking them not to eat the vegetation.
Civilization also does not necessarily require agriculture although agriculture does enable it. A number of pre-Columbian groups had stratified societies with hereditary nobility, commoners and slaves, all without agriculture. All it takes for this kind of arrangement is apparently a predictable food supply tied to a particular place. Leave the same people in the same place with more food than they can eat and they will sooner or later stratify and develop all the usual specialists. The only antidote to civilization seems to be an undependable food supply that forces people to migrate from place to place to follow the food.
An excellent essay.
The poet Ovid said it well in Metamorphoses:
"And Earth untroubled,
Unharried by hoe or
plowhare, brought forth
all that men had need for,
and those men were happy.
Gathering berries from the
cherries, blackcaps and
A fine piece, leaving only a few small nits to pick.
Hunter gatherers in the Americas did indeed hunt several animal species to extinction.
Archeological evidence suggests that many sites in North America were continually occupied for very long periods of time. At least centuries. A tweak to the concept of continual nomadic life among ancient people.
Every year for many THOUSANDS of years people gathered at The Kettle Falls on the Columbia River to harvest salmon. Many tribes came. According to the oral traditions of the native peoples with such abundance for all, there was peace.
And now, with the storm clouds gathering, some of us fade back into the forest, re-learning the ways. Discovering as much as we can of the knowledge and the gift.
We'll be here when your boats return.
Bit starry-eyed about the innocent excellence of all gatherer-hunters, isn't it? JMGreer, in his most recent post, has a more sophisticated - and probably more realistic - estimate about how long it took for palaeolithic humankind to realise the need for ecological balance, and to devise societies which managed to do that. As JM points out, the mass extinctions of many large species in NAmerica, as the ice retreated most recently, coincided with remarkable accuracy with the first advent of hunting humans there. The wisdom of balanced living seems to have been achieved later, perhaps as a painful response to these initial kill-splurges.
I too have been convinced for some time now of humans mentally devolving in tandem with the increase of technologies. It seems to follow an exponential function over the previous few decades.
Everything you have written is what I have believed for some years and in fact I highly recommend the book Rebalancing The World by Carol Flinders. She does an even better job than Daniel Quinn in my opinion.
But I have since read some things which disturb this view, for example about Native Americans, that a few of them did have slavery, and they did torture.
Not that this changes the general truth of this essay, but there were some problems.
While I'm at it, I had some theories about all this some years back when I did my anthropological reading. I couldn't help but note that human beings under civilization engage in some primate behaviors that I don't think any indiginous people did. I'm referring to the alpha male syndrome, and physical bodily postures of submission that beta males engage in when feeling threatened by the alpha. Hand kissing. (Bishops, anyone?) Face to the ground, butt in the air (a sexually submissive position). Hmmm, The king, the pope - all get this.
Can you imagine a Naive American doing this? Just doesn't fit, does it? And funnily enough, although I am dissenting from the view of this essay slightly, I also think most indigenous peoples are roughly democratic. Their chiefs do not tell them what they will do and not do. They act as mediators, their word carries weight and they use persuasion. They have meetings and reach some kind of consensus.
Contrast that with civilization, where the alpha male rules. What happened? In Flinders book she does a good job describing that most peoples who joined civilization did so under duress, thus trauma. And what do people or children under stress do? They revert to earlier and more basic behaviors. So - my theory is that civilization is more or less a trauma, and has resulted in people reverting to earlier, more primate behaviors, thus our loss of democracy and egalitarianism.
I'd be proud to be a member of any tribe with guys like Ray Jason in it.
It's a fatal flaw of many commentators to romanticize the past. Captain Ray is no exception. Of the list of legacies civilizations have bequeathed, species extinction isn't novel. Hunter and gatherers became so efficient at hunting, particularly with new technology, that they hunted most of the mega fauna to death. This mass die-off occurred concomitantly with the end of the last ice age, which compounded the stress on these animals, but since most of these species survived climate change before, the main culprit is overhunting. Humans turned to agriculture out of necessity. Where their adeptness was more gradual (as in North America), some fauna could survive and indigenous groups could achieve that harmony Captain Ray talks about. Nevertheless, mega fauna like horses were killed off and were only reintroduced by the Spanish conquistadors (conquerors).
It's easy to fall into romanticizing the past. I agree with Mr. Brinck that there is much myth making. After all, these are humans we're talking about here. There's always an impact on the environment. That being said, I also agree with Capt. Ray that the life under the hunter-gatherer framework was vastly superior and was devoid of most of the ills listed under civilization. It seems however, that our species brought this on ourselves.
And let's not be disingenious. I think Captain Ray is working a bit of mental gymnastics hoping for a return to tribal-based systems without mass die-off. Mass die-off is an inevitable result of overshoot. For once, can people just face reality?
Agreed Gwilym. Thed hard lesson of mismanagement lead to harmony, as will the survivors of the more recent and more comprehensive version. The problem this time is that the degradation is more intense, which will make even gypsy sailing a predicament as the depletion of the world's oceans make clear.
I think the greatest tragedy of our species is its inability to anticipate long-term consequences for its actions.
Many problems with the article.
"the early Neanderthals used a “scorched earth” farming practice of destroying anything that was a threat to their crops or domesticated animals."
Would you happen to have a reference? I was unaware that they practiced agriculture.
I live on the Salish Sea, Seattle. Before the Euros (like me) got here there was abundant natural food. There was also slavery, a dominant warrior tribe etc. No agriculture as we know it, it was unnecessary.
The gift based society drove the Euros bonkers. They outlawed Potlatch as contrary to civilized values. In some gift based societies each received gift comes with an obligation. Anthropologists have tried giving stuff away to such groups and sometimes find no takers. Taking, the Euro way, is much simpler as long as you get away with skipping out on the obligation. Manifest Destiny vs Potlatch. Which would you chose?
Now there is little natural food here. We place buildings and roads on our best farm land.
We even managed to put a town, Orting, in a place that is wiped out when Mt Rainier blows. There is an alarm system but after many false alarms and test failures I don't know as much attention is paid to sirens.
As I've posted before, after reading Kohlbergs (wonderful) "The Sixth Extinction", it seems to me that the arc of human existence can be summed as follows:
You have it. I want it.
"The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those that don't have it"
The problem did begin with capital *A* Agriculture; but not because humans began to grow crops or domesticate animals. Indigenous hunters-gatherers also practiced *encouraging* their favorite foods to grow. The problem with Agriculture was the development of *property* that theoretically could be *owned* by one person, not the tribe. The inevitable result of property was storing that property, and charging other people who might want to use or consume that property, and that leads directly into class and hierarchy and separation, not the interconnected, share-and-share-alike mode of living that had been sustainable for 200,000 years. Of course, if my place on top of this hierarchy is threatened by man or beast, than I will defend *my stuff* with any means necessary (or available) up to and including a first-strike. That leads to genocide and ecocide, abetted in recent decades by the sudden influx of immense energy inherent in a single barrel of oil.
Rejecting the status-quo and taking a stand in rewriting civilizations' rules is venturing into forbidding and unknown territory.
Responding to the righteous call one encounters a threshold beyond which lies this forbidding and unknown territory. An unknown land. In mythological terms, a territory and place where dragons be!
Different from the world you have known fear of change blocks your gateway into this foreign land. The crossing is guarded and the job of the guard at the threshold into this new and unknown place is to make you doubt yourself.
The thick façade of civilization is refreshing. It suggests the dragons we fear may be in our heads. We forget, living in different ways has positive benefit.
Complacency feels good. We want life to flow comfortably along and pretend that what is ugly about civilization as we know it does not exist. We resist challenging our fears. We have the power to make the world a better place but we must first cross a gate guarded by our fear of change. But in crossing this threshold the unknown territory ahead does not have to be as fearful as thought. The fears were imagined.
I am not buying that the indigenous tribes managed to make several different megafauna extinct by overhunting. That is not easy to do - and what about the saber toothed tiger? What about all those hundreds of thousands of traumatically killed wooly mammoths? I think people don't want to face or realize how many physical catastrophes this earth sometimes sustains. There is a good case to be made that the end of the last ice age - perhaps uniquely - involved severe water inundation that may have involved rushing water for hundreds of miles.
I am unsure of the research for Neanderthals using slash and burn techniques. Perhaps that's why they are no longer with us. The Civilized often believe that the indigenous people were just like them with sticks and stones but no gardens or fields. They envision a life constantly on the run, that was nasty, brutish, and short and in constant scarcity. This is because that is what we are taught in school. As with most of what one learns in industrial education it is bull-malarkey of the highest order.
There are many indigenous cultivation and harvesting techniques which were leveraged to provide balance in the environment. In addition they often ate what the Civilized consider pests or weeds rather than food. Through the use of "Lossy" harvesting techniques, selective harvesting of plants and animals seasonally (often during periods of abundance to dry for storage). Many used burning techniques to revitalize overgrown areas while providing forage for game. In some California tribes every family had their "patches". Every patch was harvested in a way that preserved it for future generations and depending on the plants present they would burn and different intervals. People poo poo indigenous knowledge as mythical and mystical because it is the opposite of what we do at every turn. And yet it is more productive, vastly more productive for all animals in the ecosystem.
It's mystical too, but in terms of practical day-to-day living statistics they had us beat: Some California tribes worked the equivalent of 2 days a week due to the mild climate. Even in more harsh locations there was ample time for ritual and song and dance. This is because before we "tamed the land" it was said you could practically walk across the Hudson River on the backs of fish. Carrier Pigeons were reported to blot out the sky for HOURS. Civilized "forestry" is mechanistic and pathetic in the area of results, especially after centuries of perpetual rape of the land and extensive water cycle interruption due to development and disruption of wetlands and watercourses. The people who survive what may come will by definition be the ones who are capable of sustainable living in one form or another.
-Tending The Wild
-Keeping It Living
-Survival Skills of Native California
What about pirates?
Granted, Captain Ray's vision of the past is a little idyllic, but the mode of life he describes is indisputable more harmonic with with the environment and its natural boundaries than the one we follow now (i.e. Civilization).
A few inaccuracies aside, what a beautiful soul shines through this peaceful and loving style! Captain Ray is a gem.
I know it's a bit off topic, but with all the talk of man's effect on the environment before civilization, we did miss the most impacting effect- the tool of fire. Used all over the world wherever man went where the environment suited he used fire as
a tool to help with hunting. This had a fairly negative impact - lots of topsoil loss, erosion and desertification. Planet warming effects.
carbon and other nutrients/minerals Gas off when grasses burn instead of the nutrients being returned to the food Web. This results in bare soil and a collapse in the soil ecology. Industrial farming speeds things up even more.
I remember a study where the silt leaving the Murray river mouth into the ocean was measured out and dated. The silt turned out to be as old as the arrival of the first humans. It went over the continental shelf. I know 40 000 years is a long time, but that is a lot of topsoil.
Onething, Jared Diamond makes a good point: is it reasonable to conclude that megafauna succumbed to the latest ice age transition when they had survived many before, and that the last transition happening to coincide with hunting tribes maximizing their hunting prowess had nothing to do with it? I'm willing to accept that environmental change stressed these animals; nevertheless, it's the same stress they managed to survive by migrating inland away from inundation and north to cooler climes at earlier times. The difference this time was a mature two-footed killer. Ronald Wright makes a similar argument in his "A Short History of Progress."
Keep in mind that overhunting didn't happen overnight. We're talking thousands of years of practice, plenty of time to dwindle populations to endangered levels by the time the last ice age ended 10000 years ago. By that time, our species was hunting for about 200000 years, and possibly 15000 years in the Americas for a rough estimate, maybe more. The destruction in the New World would be easier because of a lack of exposure to humans made these animals less wary in the same way the sailors could walk right up to a Dodo and plunk it on the head.
The conclusion that our species was largely responsible for mass extinction is unpalatable because it requires facing the unflattering reflection in the mirror, but just look what humans are doing now - the Anthropocene event. We have a real time image with which to reckon with.
Forget other species, homo sapien sapiens is the only one that engages in intraspecies killing on a mass scale. I will never underestimate the damage humans can do.
Although I agree with a lot of the emotional sentiment in the article, to buy into the ideology behind it is to make the same mistake in reverse, as if we (the civilizing Euros) were so important we have to be responsible for all the evil in the world. It would be more balanced to simply recognize the insanity of our mindset, while allowing that earlier tribal groups no doubt had savage and reptilian mindsets in play as well. Presumably these conditions were such as to cause many to switch allegiance to other methods, regardless of whether this was well advised or not. Everyone hates the modern world; the question is, in what direction do we revolt against it?
Yeah, I read Jared Diamond, but I'm still not buying it. Too many megafauna at the same time. You can't say that these animals survived previous ice ages, therefore they should survive this one. There seems to have been quite a catastrophe at the end of the last ice age, something which reversed the warming for a thousand years or so. I'm not talking about animals migrating, but animals having no chance to escape.
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