Civilization Heresies

The telepathic gorilla in Daniel Quinn’s unusual and penetrating novel Ismael speaks about mother culture. Mother culture is the story that we tell ourselves about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. It is a story of progress and purpose and the complete domination of nature. Mother culture tells us that humans are a special creation, something echoed in all of the major world religions—at least the Western, monotheistic ones. Mother culture tells us that the rules that apply to the rest of the natural world simply don’t apply to humans. Nature is a “resource” to be subdued and appropriated to satisfy the momentary whims of those at the top of the social power hierarchy. The presence of this power hierarchy itself, according to mother culture, is something natural, something obviously necessary in order for human society to function. And the fact that civilization has a “function” is an unquestioned—unquestionable—assumption.

Humans dancing to mother culture’s siren song have brought the earth to the brink of climate catastrophe (and, most likely well beyond that brink), but still operate under the delusion that we can save ourselves even as the rest of life on the planet is extinguished. We will be able to find another place, on another planet. Or perhaps we will merge with our machines and become transhuman cyborgs capable of accommodating a scorched biosphere. These options are fairytales—bedtime stories that mother culture tells us to keep us placated, to keep us from questioning the status quo.

But mother culture’s lies don’t stop there. The following is a (not comprehensive) list of logically problematic or demonstrably false orthodoxies of civilization. Yet to openly question the veracity of any one of them is to commit an unconscionable heresy.
• Humans are naturally competitive and acquisitive
• Humans are violent by nature
• Social stratification is natural for humans
• The natural world is something separate from the human world
• The natural world is something to be subdued, overcome, and dominated
• Humans are a superior species
• Humans have a right/responsibility to exercise dominion over the natural world
• The continued/future existence of the human species is important
• Progress is desirable
• Progress is inevitable
• Progress is the solution to our present problems
• Technological innovation is desirable
• Technological innovation is inevitable
• Technological innovation is the solution to our present problems
• Science serves human interests
• Life outside of civilization is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short
• Civilization is a superior life-style
• We need civilization
• Civilization is the ultimate good
• Civilization is designed to satisfy human needs
• Civilization actually satisfies human needs
• Civilization is an inevitable product of human evolution
• The end of civilization would mean chaos
• The end of civilization is the end of the world
• It’s too late to change now: you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube

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