The accepted wisdom of today's environmental reform movement is founded on two core assumptions. The first is that most of the technical solutions we need to address the world's various crises are available, or at least could be swiftly developed by sufficiently intelligent, hard-working people. The second assumption is that all that's lacking for a successful outcome is the political will to put these technical solutions into effect.
Whether the discussion turns to replacing coal-fired power plants with wind turbines and using electric cars instead of gas-driven SUVs, converting industrial agricultural practices to organic permaculture, or reversing the decline of ocean life though international regulations, it is an article of faith in the reform movement that we know what we need to do and all that's lacking is a sufficiently visionary leader to put more planet-friendly solutions in place.
Both those assumptions ignore significant aspects of the situation – aspects that must be addressed for the envisioned reforms to be successful. This article examines those two assumptions with an eye to uncovering the confounding issues.
As the following laundry list of negative trends clearly illustrates, the scale and diversity of the problems we face are significant.
These sorts of problems are known as wicked problems. That means they are messy, circular, aggressive and interlinked, so that trying to solve one may worsen others. Each problem shows a trend, and all the trends appear to be worsening inexorably. In some cases the trends have been visible for centuries (for example the loss of arable land and desertification), sometimes for decades (as with the loss of aquatic biomass), and some like Peak Oil for a scant few years. In all cases the global trends show no signs of reversing, however much effort has been expended to alter their local or regional trajectories . As their effects become more pronounced, it becomes easier to see their potential to hit our globalized industrial civilization like a planet-sized version of Hurricane Katrina.
As daunting as the individual problems are, the key to understanding the importance of this list is recognizing the degree of the linkages between them. In many cases, trying to solve one problem can inadvertently make others worse. One prominent example is the attempt to address global warming through the use of ethanol as a vehicle fuel. While there may have been some merit to that primary intention, the secondary effects – increasing dead zones in the oceans due to fertilizer runoff, and rising food prices due to the use of food crops as fuel – eliminated the overall benefit of the effort, and even created a net negative outcome. One dark quip that addresses this sort of backfire is, "Around every silver lining there is a cloud."
When viewed from this perspective it becomes obvious that dealing with the panoply of problems besetting our world involves considerably more than just knocking them down one at a time. If we don't apply holistic, system-level thinking to the converging crisis, our well-meaning efforts stand an excellent chance of making the overall situation worse. It is a mistake to think of "solving" these problems in any global or final sense. Some of them may be improved regionally, especially if they are not in local conflict with other competing problems. The logical corollary is that there will be other regions where those same problems cannot be solved, due to different local circumstances.
The big question, however, concerns those problems do not respect national or regional boundaries. Global warming and the death of ocean biomes affect us all, and failures to address these problems in any region can make the situation worse for everyone. In these cases, it's obvious that a collective global response is called for – a response that brings together the political, economic, industrial and opinion-making institutions of our world. If these institutions acted together they might have a chance of implementing the deep and wide-ranging changes the situation calls for.
Unfortunately, we have seen precious little evidence of such a collective response. For example, we have repeatedly seen climate change conferences break down or issue watered-down statements that fail to address the scale of the accelerating crisis. While individuals, citizens' groups and even some governments are obviously aware of the urgency, collective action repeatedly fails to gain the required global traction.
This state of affairs is no accident.
This is not because of some dark and sinister cabal or conspiracy to hold back change in the name of personal profit, though there probably are some instances of that. The real reasons are at once more banal and more worrisome than the Bilderberg watchers assume. In the next section we will examine the structural reasons for this sorry situation.
Where did we come from?
In order to understand the role that politics plays in our collective failure to address our predicament we need to examine the nature of modern civilization.
Now, when I use the term "modern civilization" I'm not just talking about the growth of industrialism over the last two hundred years or even the growth of Western culture over the last two thousand years. What we usually think of as "modern civilization" is the development, refinement and culmination of cultural changes that began ten thousand years ago. To understand modern civilization we need to look back at how we lived before we became "modern and civilized" and what happened to push us across that threshold.
Human beings have been around in one form or another for two and a half million years, first as homo habilis, then as homo erectus, and finally as homo sapiens. For virtually all of those 2.5 million years, we lived in harmony with our environment. While it may not always have been a comfortable life (how could it have been, without color cable television or cars?), we were nonetheless perfectly adapted to our habitat. This statement is supported by two facts: over most of that period our presence caused little or no damage to the planetary biosphere; and during that time the human population was essentially stable, growing to only 5 million or so in two and a half million years, for a net addition of a scant two people per year.
Recently there have been some remarkable discoveries about the quality of life in the times before modern civilization. We have always known that society back then consisted of hunter-gatherers, organized as tribes. The classical impression was that their lives were, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Recent research has shown that in fact hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed a remarkable quality of life characterized by low levels of effort, plenty of leisure time, good nutrition, low levels of disease, egalitarianism, very low levels of suicide, homicide and warfare, a high degree of personal autonomy and close-knit communities. In the words of Marshall Sahlins, hunter-gatherers were "the original affluent society." In one of our more damaging semantic restatements we have defined "subsistence" living as bad and "sustainable" living as good – even though in the context of a hunter-gatherer society, they mean exactly the same thing.
So here we have a species that was exquisitely adapted to its environment, living an affluent yet sustainable life, treading lightly on the earth, never outgrowing or overrunning its habitat, at least in terms of the species as a whole. We lived in harmony with our world for two and a half million years, for 99.6% of the time we have been on the planet. Then suddenly, in the last ten thousand years – a mere 0.4% eye blink of time – our population increased over 1000 times, we decimated the earth's stocks of non-renewable resources, we cut down 90% of the planet's forests, we fished her oceans to the edge of extinction, and we live in a near-constant state of conflict with each other. In this grievously short time we have brought about all the wicked problems listed above. Pardon my French, but what the hell happened?
What Changed Us?
In a word, it was agriculture.
About 10,000 years ago humanity developed organized, settled agriculture. Over the next couple of thousand years our predominant social model changed from hunter-gatherers to cultivators. We settled down (as one has to, to raise crops), and started to form larger social structures – villages, towns and cities. Nobody is precisely sure why we developed agriculture – after all, our previous ways of life had been perfectly satisfactory for millions of years. It may have been precipitated by climate changes, or growing populations in some areas, or it may have been just one of those things. Whatever the trigger may have been, there is no doubt that the threshold of radical human change is clearly demarcated by fields of grain.
The Growth of Hierarchy
The shift to settled cultivation entrained a host of other changes. Our diet was dramatically impoverished. Levels of chronic disease and malnutrition increased. Levels of social violence escalated. However, the most significant change was the introduction of hierarchies that had not previously existed in our social systems.
Why the development of agriculture resulted in the simultaneous growth of social hierarchies is still a matter of debate. My opinion is that it happened because the risk to farming communities from crop failures was very high. If the crops failed, these communities contained too many people to survive on local foraging or hunting – both because population densities were so high and because the habitat destruction caused by farming had reduced the amount of local wild food. There was also no way to bring in enough food from other unaffected regions. Therefore the risk of crop failures had to be mitigated. This mitigation involved many activities. For example, local hunting kept larger crop-eating pests at bay, irrigation helped in times of drought, and shamanic intercession took care of storms and blights.
Each of these activities of hunter, irrigation engineer and shaman was highly specialized in comparison to the more generic farming skills required for planting and harvesting. This specialization conferred power on the holders of those skills. This was especially true in the case of shamans, whose power could not be entirely learned, but was said to emanate from a mysterious connection with the supernatural. Their attempt to exercise control over nature gave the shamans the real ability to exercise control over other people ("Obey me or the gods will frown on us, and the crop failure will be your fault!"), and the first systematic hierarchies were born.
The Effect of Surplus Food
The other significant change introduced by organized agriculture was the psychological effect of reliable surpluses of food. While the previous two and a half million years of our existence had been shaped by sustainable subsistence, agriculture introduced the possibility of producing more food than we needed, letting us distribute the required amount to the members of the community and store the excess.
Centralizing the production of food and managing its distribution reinforced the development of hierarchies. Since some of the food was needed by people who had no direct hand in producing it (such as weavers, shamans and granary guards), some means had to be found of giving them equitable access to it. This meant coming up with a way of defining the relative values of different kinds of work, and establishing a medium of exchange. In one stroke the concepts of money and wages appeared, resulting in a further transfer of power to those who established the value of work and controlled the money supply (and indirectly the access to food).
As important as that development was, there was yet another fundamental cultural change brought about by the simple existence of a food surplus. For the previous two and a half million years, human wants had been satisfied by the concept of "enough". People worked until they had enough, then they stopped. Now there was almost always "more than enough". The perception that there was more than enough food caused a radical change in how we looked at the world.
Food surpluses and the development of a medium of exchange made trade for non-food goods possible. The trade of ongoing food surpluses enabled a continuous growth in the material comfort of peoples' lives. It did not take long for people to become accustomed to this new state of affairs. As memories of the past faded over just a few generations, the new conditions of growing abundance were rapidly accepted as the "natural" order of things.
The Roots of Modern Civilization
We now have the two critical preconditions for "modern civilization". The first is the belief that continuous growth in material prosperity is the natural order of the universe and the birthright of humanity. The second is the belief that a power hierarchy is essential for the smooth functioning of the growing system.
As always happens with hierarchies, power flows uphill. Along with it go the perquisites of power, the most important being the right to higher levels of material abundance than those lower in the pecking order. To ensure that this comfortable situation is maintained, part of the accumulated social power is used to protect the situation. This is done by strongly defending the two fundamental preconditions: the idea that both material growth and the need for hierarchy are natural, essential and unquestionable. Indeed, the status quo is best served if the rest of the community sees this situation as the only possible way life can work, and that any suggestions to the contrary are the result of either some nefarious agenda or outright insanity.
Over the centuries an interlocking system of guardian institutions has grown up to protect and defend the two key ideas of growth and hierarchy.
- Our economic and financial institutions cooperate with business and industry to set the value of work and control the money supply (thereby controlling access to food). In this role it doesn't make any difference whether an economy is capitalist, socialist or communist. The core belief it guards is always the same one.
- Our educational institutions teach successive generations how the system works, giving them the tools to integrate into it and manipulate it, while at the same time training them to see this as the only possible way the world can work.
- Our communications media reinforce this message by enlisting people in the growth paradigm. They do this both through overt messages like advertising and covert messages embedded in the story lines of entertainment.
- Our religious institutions (as distinct from the religions they purport to enshrine) are primarily normative social structures. Many incorporate an overt message that we should be content with things as they are. There are often injunctions against questioning authority, as all authority is seen to devolve from the supernatural – just as it did for the shamans of the early agricultural era.
- Our legal institutions enforce the norms of hierarchy in ways too numerous to count. These range from the protection of privilege (one law for the rich, one for the poor) to the preferential defense of property rights over human rights.
- Our political institutions sit at the tip of the pyramid. Political institutions encode, enshrine and manage the application of social power. Politics is the institution that legitimizes all the others. Because of its unique ability to make laws and its access to legalized violence to defend those laws, politics is the fullest expression of the power hierarchy of modern civilization.
At the base of the hierarchy, supporting it all, are an ever-diminishing number of farmers who apply ever-increasing amounts of knowledge, technology and petroleum to ensure an ever-expanding supply of food. Because at the core it is their food that makes the whole edifice possible.
So where does this put us in relation to the array of wicked problems we listed at the beginning? Simply put, every one of those problems is the result of unbridled growth. They are the logical results of the continual exercise of the first precondition of modern civilization, the drummer of growth we have been marching to for ten thousand years since the invention of agriculture.
Politics is the problem, not the solution
In light of this analysis it should be obvious why we are repeatedly failing to address any of these wicked problems. The only permanent "solution" to any of them is the secession of growth. That idea is anathema to our guardian institutions. And as the occupants of the pinnacle of power, our politicians have every reason to derail efforts in that direction, no matter how small.
Politics, regardless of party or ideology, is part of the problem and can never be part of the solution. While it may be easier for the average person to live under the rule of a more humane parcel of rogues, at its heart politics is the primary guardian institution of modern civilization. The role of all politics is to manage power, and power is always managed for the benefit of the holders of power. It doesn't matter whether the power managers are Democrats, Republicans, Tories, Grits, Social Democrats, Communists or a military junta. They all fulfill the same role in service of the same beneficiaries.
In order to fulfill that role they unite with the other guardian institutions – the economic, industrial, legal. religious, educational and communications organizations. Together they create, maintain and guard a noetic milieu (a globalized intuitive, non-rational consciousness) in which any values that challenge the two fundamental preconditions to modern civilization are seen as incomprehensible, self-evidently absurd, dangerous or even insane. Since the primary value system these guardians protect is the paradigm of continuous material growth, the most dangerous of all radical ideas are any proposals to limit, halt or reverse that growth.
The influences of our guardian institutions are firmly embedded in our global culture. They have such power and such general support at all levels of society that it is ultimately fruitless to try and remove them from power by either direct or indirect confrontation. The penalties for trying this are severe and ruthlessly applied.
In light of this, is there any hope for a return to a sustainable, egalitarian, interconnected, considerate and just civilization? I strongly believe that there is, but getting there will be neither sure nor easy.
The institutions that stand between us and such a future are trapped by their dependence on the very paradigm they are sworn to protect. They defend the belief that permanent material growth is natural, possible and inevitable. While they defend that belief with laws, guns and television, ultimately their power comes from people who accept that premise. If people stop believing that such growth is possible the institutions' power declines, no matter how many defense mechanisms they engage. If growth falters, the people lose faith and the institutions crack and crumble.
Look back at the list of problems that led off the article.
Every single one of them is the result of our growth encountering limits.
While we may be able to figure out ways to temporarily circumvent some of these limits, the pattern is now clear. The growth of modern civilization is slowing down, and is even showing evidence of coming to a halt. For a guardian institution that depends on growth for its very survival, this is like a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
What that means is that our guardian institutions will inevitably start losing their monolithic top-down power. This dis-integration will leave "cracks in the sidewalk of civilization". And just as grass grows through cracks in real concrete, small communities and individuals will start to appear through the metaphorical concrete of our industrial civilization.
No one can predict when, where or how the dis-integration will appear. It will take different forms in different places. The response of the guardians will probably be violently draconian in most cases. But there are places where communities have already formed in anticipation of such an opportunity. Like "Gaia's antibodies" they will work to heal the wounds, widen the cracks, and let the sunshine and fresh air revitalize the hidden earth. As the seed stock of the next phase of civilization they will spread their values on the wind.
The next cycle of human experience on this planet will be very different from any that has gone before. We will have fewer resources, but more knowledge. We will have to deal with toxic landscapes, a warming climate, shifting rainfall patterns and the emergence of new diseases. To balance that we will have better communications and longer memories than any civilization that has gone before us. We will not fall back into the stone age, but neither will we motor off happily into the sunset in our electric cars. There will be hardship and misery, but there will also be joy – the joy that comes from looking forward, from participating in our communities, from the love of those around us. Above all, there will be the future.
I'm indebted to the writing of Daniel Quinn and John Zerzan, as well as to Riane Eisler for her book "The Chalice and the Blade". I'd also like to acknowledge the philosophy of Anarcho-Primitivism for its critique of civilization (though perhaps not for its suggested solutions).