Friday, July 29, 2011


To understand everything necessary for you to understand about yourself, you need only know this one fact: you are a prehistoric forager.  Your physiology, your muscles, your sensory systems, your immune system, your digestive system, your behavioral predispositions, and your emotional sensitivities are all designed specifically to accommodate the requirements of a foraging lifestyle.  Your brain is wired to facilitate the navigation of a free, physically active, spiritually rich life in a small highly-egalitarian social group culturally embedded in local natural systems.   This is who you are.   You are a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer to the very core of your being. 

The lifestyle that you have been forced to adopt is not who you are.  In many ways it represents a negation of who you are.  The mismatch between your physical and psychological expectations and the compulsory demands of a technology-dependent post-industrial civilization is an unbridgeable gulf.  Your muscles are atrophied.  Your heart languishes in a soup of stress hormone metabolites.   Your lungs are brittle bags.  Your eyes have lost their acuity and are blind to the periphery, and your visual world has subsequently become a narrowing tunnel.  There are sounds you can no longer hear, smells that have been permanently masked, and flavors and textures that you will never know.  Physically, you are little more than a walking corpse.

Psychologically, you are a child.  Your goals and aspirations have been entrained to the will of an unfeeling planet-devouring machine.  Your thoughts have become mechanized and outsourced.  Your emotional reactions are those of an infant.
And you are not free.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A thought experiment

Scenario 1: Imagine a technologically sophisticated civilization of about seven billion people.  Imagine that this civilization has managed to solve most of the big problems that affect us in our own global technologically sophisticated civilization, including the problem of power generation.  Imagine that this civilization has discovered an unlimited source of environmentally-friendly renewable power.  Imagine that the power source is human beings, specifically a novel kind of energy released through the painful and slow incineration of human beings while they are still alive.  Assume for thought-experiment’s sake that no other animal will work, it has to be living humans.   Imagine that it takes the combustion of several million humans each year to meet the massive energy demands of this civilization, but since infertility is low and most disease has been eliminated, there will always be plenty of people to feed the furnaces.  The process is completely sustainable.  Imagine further that this society has arrived at a completely equitable method of determining who ends up in the furnace, perhaps a lottery in which each and every living person has an equal chance of being selected on any given day. 

Now for the thought experiment part, what would it be like to be a citizen in this world, knowing that any day you or your children might be hauled away and fed into the furnaces, knowing that in order for you to toast your bread in the morning someone has to die a slow and agonizing death?  What kind of moral monsters would people have to become in order to accept this kind of an arrangement? 

Scenario 2: Imagine our own technologically sophisticated civilization, one in which tens of millions of people are killed each year in order to support our industrial infrastructure.  Technology kills people directly through car, train, boat, and plane wrecks (I refuse to call them “accidents” because, although they are not predictable, they are expected and unavoidable results of mechanical failure and operator error), industrial mishaps, bridge and building collapse, appliance malfunction or misuse, and through the deliberate use of military weaponry.  The latter category is by far the largest and is likely to grow larger in inverse proportion to the decrease in available fossil fuel--itself a direct result of industrial technology.  These deaths are not avoidable, or even theoretically avoidable.  They are part and parcel of how our industrial system works.  Technology also kills people directly in less observable ways, such as through exposure to industrial carcinogens, through the chemical alteration of the air, water, and soil, and through metabolic and vascular diseases of all flavors caused by processed food and technology-mediated lifestyles.  Add to that drug and alcohol use, homicide, suicide, and diseases that would never exist if they did not have densely populated urban settings in which to incubate, mutate, and spread.   

Now back to the thought experiment part.  What are the essential differences between scenario 1 and scenario 2?  In both scenarios millions of people have to die each year in order to power the machine of civilization, in order to maintain the technological infrastructure.  The most obvious difference is the lack of explicit acknowledgment (or even vague awareness) of the relationship between technology and death in scenario 2.  Another way that the second scenario differs from the first is that in our society the selection process is not random.  The method of choosing who dies on a given day is not equitable but is heavily weighted toward certain groups of people: you are more likely to die as a direct result of industrial technology if you live in the third world, if you live below the poverty line, if you are a person of color, or if you are a child. 

What would it be like to live in our own civilization as a fully aware and conscious human being?  What would it be like knowing that in order for you to toast your bread in the morning someone has to die a (perhaps) slow and agonizing death?  What kind of moral monsters would we have to become in order to accept this kind of arrangement?


Friday, July 1, 2011

Misplacing the blame

The dualistic human versus nature perspective promoted in Western society can be traced at least as far back as Descartes’ mechanistic view of natural processes as opposed to the spiritual essence of the human soul/mind.  The antagonistic flavor of the relationship between humans and nature probably has its ultimate source in ancient Judeo-Christian cosmology.  Don’t worry, I have no intention of tracing the conceptual ins and outs of the historical path of dualistic thought with respect to the natural would.  It is enough to say that it is clearly not a tenable perspective.     

Unfortunately, attempts to resolve the human-nature relationship by absorbing humanity within the natural world frequently ignore a real and crucial distinction between civilization as a maladaptive artificial mechanical process and natural adaptive human activity.  This failure to distinguish the natural results of collective human behavior from the un-nature-al results of the implementation of a specific kind of centralized behavior-control system (i.e., civilization) is particularly apparent in discussions of our global ecological crisis. For example, various organismic metaphors have been used to highlight the role of human activity in the global ecological crisis in a way that makes civilization seem like a natural byproduct of human activity.  For instance, the exploding human population is sometimes compared to planetary cancer or a planet-wide parasitic infestation.  These metaphors, although apt in terms of capturing the scope of the devastation, nonetheless serve to obscure the true source of the problem: the machine of civilization (no metaphor here—civilization is actually a kind of machine). 

It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the extent to which human activity is threatening the integrity of the biosphere.  Global climate change, deforestation, overpopulation, a weakening ozone layer, widespread accumulation of environmental toxins, and an accelerating rate of species extinction are all results of human activity.  However, the true locus of these problems is almost always misplaced.  The source of our environmental woes is rarely pinned directly on civilization itself, but on some feature or features of human nature.  Our environmental problems are side effects of our alienation, a crisis of consciousness or a pathology or culture.  Our problems are not due to the accelerating influence of a system of power and control that is becoming more and more efficient at precisely what it was designed to do.  It’s not civilization itself, but some inherent set of human flaws.  Consider the following taken from a book titled Green Psychology:

“It is widely agreed that the global ecological crisis which confronts the world today is one of the most critical turning points that human civilization has ever faced.  Furthermore, the realization is spreading that the root causes of environmental destruction lie in human psychology—in certain distorted perceptions, attitudes, and values that modern humans have come to hold.”

Global climate change is caused by distorted perceptions, attitudes, and values?  The first sentence in the quote above highlights the true distortion: our global crisis is something that civilization faces.  Civilization is the problem, but to hang the blame on civilization itself, squarely where it belongs, means that we would have to openly acknowledge what is really going in.  We would have to see civilization for what it is and, most uncomfortably, recognize the true extent to which we are slaves yoked securely to the flywheel of the machine.  The global environmental crisis is not the problem.  It never has been.  Civilization is the problem.  There is no way to solve our environmental problems and at the same time allow civilization to continue.