Friday, February 25, 2011

The thin ice of domestication

There are numerous possible forms that a post-civilized world might take.  Imagination is a poor resource in this case because imagination tends toward a bipolar one-dimensionality, with a charred and lifeless shell at one pole and a green utopia—a global human Ewok village—at the other.   In between are various levels of road-warrior thunder dome dystopia.  But this single linear dimension hardly begins to encapsulate the range of possibility, and nonlinear systems theory suggests that something surprising is likely to emerge from the rubble, something unexpected, something unpredictable even with a thorough account of the structure of the relations among prior conditions.

Primitivism is informative, but not instructive.   A clear understanding of how our nature as beings was shaped by our past can provide us with ways of thinking about our present circumstances; it can provide us with a model for preferred future conditions as well, but it cannot tell us what is specifically necessary now in order to bring about those preferred conditions.  

It is clear that domestication is at the center of the storm, and that our salvation requires a physical and psychological re-wilding.  What is not so clear is which paths we should take in pursuit of that goal.  If the collapse is violent and abrupt, the question of paths will be answered for us.  Foraging life-ways may be the only recourse for any who happen to survive.  If it is less violent, or if it is more dissolution than collapse, then there may be an opportunity to reverse history in stages, and the communal Neolithic village may reemerge as a dominant form.   

I wonder whether an intentional return to the Neolithic makes sense, as a way of facilitating the de-civilizing of the planet: a return to life in small pastoral villages modeled on the Neolithic ideal but armed with the tools of permaculture and informed by an understanding of the dehumanizing potential of any lifestyle based on domestication. 

Or is domestication like plutonium in that there is no safe level of exposure?  A hesitant crackling dance onto thin ice, or a faltering stride off the precipice?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The human mind as eminent domain

A sunset is part of the aesthetic commons, a feature of our planet that is equally mine and yours and yet belongs to neither of us.  Likewise with the view of a forested hill, or a field, or the river that winds its way along the highway.

But every day it gets a bit more difficult to see the river.   And the sunsets have become increasingly fragmented, occluded by gargantuan billboards that turn the horizon into an endless smear of commercial advertisements and political propaganda.   Ecopsychologists have found that the simple ability to view a natural landscape or skyscape has a positive impact on physical and psychological wellbeing, which means that my wellbeing is being assaulted so that corporations can increase their bottom line.

Nothing new here. 

The government (federal, state, and local) has the power to divest me of my property for any purpose it deems justifiable—which is any purpose at all—without my consent.  It’s called eminent domain, a term that has its source in a 17th century description of the king’s sovereign ownership and control of every scrap of land in the kingdom.  The government has the authority to take my land and give it to a private business if it is deemed to be in the best interests of the community.  So if the government determines that it is in the community’s best interests to erect a walmart where my house now stands, I will have no choice but to find someplace else to live. 

I will be compensated, of course.  The constitution guarantees “just’ compensation, which means that I will be paid whatever the government thinks my home is worth.  Any emotional connection I may have developed—even if the land has been in my family for generations—does not factor into the computation of just compensation.  The existence of just compensation, whether or not it is truly “just,” suggests that there are (in theory, at least) some limits to eminent domain when it comes to physical property.

But land is not the only possession of mine the government has an interest in selling.  It is also in the business of selling my mind.  There are no limits to when and how and to what purposes my mind can be altered, and when an advertising agency erects a billboard to persuade me to buy their product or to alter my political opinion in a way that promotes the corporate agenda, I am entitled to no compensation.

Research suggests that training myself to ignore the billboard does not prevent the message from worming its way into the unconscious tissues of my thought, so the persuasive content cannot be avoided.  But that’s not the whole point.  The point is that the billboard obstructs my view of the horizon.  The view of the horizon is part of the commons.  The billboard adds to the clutter and ugliness of my commute, and contributes to the impoverishment of my physical and psychological state.  It affects my thoughts—that is its very purpose—and I have not consented to have my thinking so affected.  And I am given no compensation. 

If I had the means, I would issue a bounty on billboards.  I would offer a cash reward for each billboard that was destroyed: blown-up, burned, knocked down, or otherwise irreparably defaced.  Send a clear message that the horizon is not for sale!

Of course I wouldn’t stop at billboards…

Friday, February 18, 2011

One for the Ages

A few years back, geologists suggested that recent planetary changes caused by human activity were of such magnitude as to warrant the addition of a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.  Anthropogenic changes in atmosphere, climate, seawater, and land erosion patterns, as well as sweeping species extinctions mean that for all intents and purposes the Holocene ended with the industrial revolution.   I would argue that the changes caused by industrial civilization warrant not just the coining of a new epoch, but the unveiling of an entirely new era. 

We have entered the Anthropozoic

The differences between before and after the industrial revolution are easily on par with the differences that straddle the two sides of the K-T boundary—industrial civilization is the mother of all meteor strikes!

Of course, that’s just a bookkeeping issue.   How scientists (intellectual maid-servants of the machine) choose to label their timeline is of no lasting relevance.

Monday, February 14, 2011

More Thoughts on the Distinction between Tools and Technology

Tools and technology are not synonymous: a cell phone is a tool in the same way that a nuclear weapon is a broom.  And the difference is not just a matter of size or scope or flexibility or organizational sophistication.

The most important distinction between tools and technology has to do with goals.   Tools extend your ability to act in pursuit of freely chosen ends whereas technology dictates the end to be pursued—and often becomes the end itself.  

Much of the confusion about the distinction stems from the fact that it is not always possible to establish whether something is a tool or a facet of technology without taking into consideration the goals to which its use is being directed.  Take something as simple as a wrench.  In the hands of a mechanic maintaining an automobile, a wrench is just another facet of industrial technology: it is necessary for the functioning of the machine in the same way that a specific kind of gear or pulley is necessary.  Machines need maintenance, and human wrench-handlers are part of the mechanical process.  In the hands of a person disabling a bulldozer that is being used to clear a path through old growth forest, the very same wrench is a tool.  Its use is directed at freely chosen ends, and the fact that it was designed so that it neatly fits the bolt-heads of the machine is no different from the fact that a specific kind of hunting knife was shaped to separate skin and fur from muscle tissue.    

Tools can be complex.  Tools can involve division of labor in a superficial sense.  The use of some tools requires multiple persons, each performing a specific movement or function at a coordinated time (e.g., casting a large fishing net).  And tool manufacture frequently occurs in stages that require the imposition of a hierarchically organized process.  This is true of the construction of even fairly crude stone tools: first you hew the general shape, then you fashion the cutting edge (through the systematic application of multiple flaking tools), then you attach the handle.   For more sophisticated tools, each stage can be assigned to a different person, depending on artistic aptitude or experience; but even with sophisticated tools, the entire process is transparent to each person involved and each step can be reassigned without a substantial loss of integrity to the final result.  

Technology, however, involves specialization and the unequal distribution of specialized knowledge.   The process is not transparent—even to those who are in positions of authority over the process. 

Oh, yeah.  Authority. 

Authority is an essential component of technology.  The very idea of authority has its source in the division of labor and the isolation of specialized knowledge associated with technology.  It is informative to note the two (not mutually exclusive) ways that we commonly use the term authority: a person who possess specialized knowledge (an expert) and a person who has power to control our behavior.  Primitive societies have wise elders and others who may be in possession of knowledge that is not in general circulation, but they do not have authorities in either of the senses that we have been trained to accept. 

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Technology has its origin in Neolithic domestication.  Civilization is a consequence of applying domestication technology to humans.  And it is not hyperbole to say that civilization is a technology itself—or that you and I are tools in the service of the goals of the machine.  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Sustainable Natural Resources" is a Three-way Oxymoron

To call forest and prairie and soil and rivers and breathable air resources means that they are considered to be objects for consumption.  The tension between consumption and sustainable needs no embellishment.  But what is really meant by sustainable in this context is that our parasitic consumption can be prolonged through regulation and control.  And as soon as a natural entity’s fitness—or continued existence—depends on bureaucratic regulation and control, the word natural no longer applies.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

Illuminating the Green Myth of Progress

Years ago I read a self-published treatise on recycling that I found on the shelf in my local community college library.  It was written in the mid-1970s.  I don’t remember the author or the name of the book.  The main thesis was something to the effect that recycling was a waste of time—and actually made things worse in the long run by allowing the status quo to continue to operate for that much longer on finite resource reserves.  The author gave an example based on aluminum recycling: there is content loss and degradation at the molecular level each time the metal is recycled.   So even if consumption didn’t increase and we were able to recycle every aluminum can produced, we would continue to need to extract resources for new metal to replace what is lost and to provide the energy necessary for the process itself.  But the worst part is that recycling feeds the illusion that we have solved the problem of finite resources when we have merely made slight alterations in the time frame.

CFL light bulbs might make a good contemporary example of this illusion.  CFLs “save energy” because they produce more luminescence per kilowatt than do incandescent light bulbs.  So by swapping out incandescents for CFLs we can burn less coal for producing light.  But we are still burning coal, so nothing is changed there.  And the mercury content of CFLs means that we have not made any headway in terms of reducing environmental heavy metal contamination.   But wait! Now we have LED lights that last far longer than even CFLs—some of which use an organic semiconductor!  Surely we are on our way to a bright and completely sustainable future!  Of course, LEDs still use energy, both in producing light and to manufacture.

Less of a bad thing does not magically transform it into something good.  So the coal supply lasts a bit longer.  So the industrial machine can grind away at the biosphere for a few more days, or weeks—or years even.  Where is the “savings” there?  Each day the machine is allowed to continue means another 100 – 200 species gone forever.  Entire species!   Each and every day!

Pull the plug today and there are 150 unique and irreplaceable life forms that will still be around tomorrow.  And maybe one of them is us.    

Friday, February 4, 2011

Community versus Collective

“But the primitive society is a community, springing from common origins, composed of reciprocating persons, and growing from within.  It is not a collective.  Collectives emerge in civilization; they are functional to specialized ends, and they generate a sense of being imposed from without.  They are objectively perceived, objectifying and estranging structures […] A collective has the form of a community but lacks the substance; it is involved with the concept “public,” which is not at all the same as the idea of the social.  The fully functioning, highly individuated member of society is the antithesis of the public man [sic.].”  --Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization.

A collective is a tool, a social technology, an organizational structure, a machine designed to facilitate the pursuit of ends—ends not necessarily shared in equal measure by each participant.  In that sense a collective is no different from any other bureaucratic institution, easily usurped and redirected by the power elite. Collectives are thus useful only in the short term, as a first line of attack, perhaps.

A community is an organic process.  It is not a tool for achieving ends.  It is its own end.  It is therefore immune to usurpation by power and cannot be redirected from without.  To be conquered it must be destroyed.  It is for this reason that the power elite so frequently resorts to genocide.

We need to be nurturing our evolved predilections for community.  Yes we are individuals.  But we are not autonomous and independent nodes in some abstract network.   Community is where the true strength of the primitive lies.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bad Manners

John Zerzan was critiquing a book about the negative impact technology has on our interpersonal interactions on his radio program last week.  The idea that we might actually work to limit technological mediation in our social world is, of course, a non-starter; instead, according to the author we should work to establish better manners.  A caller commented that there has indeed been a general deterioration of manners in our society as of late, and then went on to claim that manners are a separate issue from technology.  I think the caller was definitely right about the first part of what he said but wrong about the second.  There is a direct link between technology and the degradation of manners in our society—a link that can probably be traced all the way back to the intrusion of civilization and its requisite social stratification.

Industrial technology has become metaphor for us.  We think of each other in mechanical terms, as cogs and sprockets in the machine of civilization.  We treat people according their two-dimensional roles in the mechanical process rather than as multidimensional human beings.  When we play the role of customer, we demand obsequiousness from those playing the role of merchant.  We treat the person at the customer service desk with the contempt we have for the corporation.  We direct our frustration with the institution at the people the institution employs. 

Add to this the influence of our rapidly increasing dependence on electronically–mediated communication.  When we talk to each other through machines large pieces of the humanity of the communicative experience are lost.  It’s easy to be rude to a voice coming from a little plastic box or a string of words on a screen.

Manners are the rules of polite engagement among people.  They are superfluous in a society where people are reduced to “consumer units” in a global machine and personhood has been redefined so as to apply to mindless corporations.