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…