Thursday, October 29, 2015

Progress, or Civilization, As We Know It

Then what is the answer? – Not to be deluded by dreams …

I. A Narrative

Before the advent of civilization as we know it, human lives were nasty, brutish, and short. We lived, in fact, more like animals, unable to exert any control over our environment, fearing death and privation at every turn. We had only what nature supplied in its raw form, wild animals and uncultivated plants for food and clothes, caves for shelter, broken stone for tools.
In this natural state, we ourselves were brutal and violent. The strong could prey upon the weak, might made right, and there was no other law. We had no incentive to develop higher culture, because we were always consumed with protecting ourselves and anything we might produce could easily be taken away.
At some point there was a shift, and we decided to settle in one place. We took control of our food by managing it through agriculture and domestication, and we took control of ourselves through laws and social contracts. This made us safer and more willing to cooperate, and so we were able to innovate in art, technology, and society. We multiplied. We began to dream of grander edifices than the small buildings we had made. And certain men among us rose up as talented leaders around which we could organize ourselves.
Of course there was still danger from less civilized persons. So we built walls to surround our living space, and we built massive buildings to house the people, and to demonstrate that we could.
We had created the first city, and in it there bustled all the activity expected from cities. We made further laws to govern it, we divided up our labor to be more efficient and masterful, we brought the fruits of our agricultural labors into the city to trade. We invented writing to keep track of our possessions and who owed what to whom. Soon, in the natural course of things, we created money, debt, and taxes. We had the time and space to develop high art, to further refine our architecture, to deepen our studies of the mysteries of religion.
We prospered. We were safer, better fed, more productive, happier. Seeing how we lived, the less civilized began to emulate our way of life. In this way, civilization spread, out of the fertile crescent, around the Mediterranean, into Europe and Asia.
As more of us joined the ranks of the civilized, we developed higher and higher technology. We sailed around the globe, began the project of exploring every dark corner. We often encountered people living in squalor, naked, as animals essentially, like the stone age people we once had been. Though they had to give up some of the older ways to which they were accustomed, it was clear that our high technology was the wave of the future rolling in. Though there were sacrifices to be made surely, in the broader flow of history they were necessary to allow for forward progress.
Over a few centuries, technology and social systems developed apace. The inherent value of every human life became apparent, and we worked to bring the products of modern culture to everyone. We began to conquer war, disease, and famine. Around the world, people were living longer, healthier, happier lives. We performed incredible feats of science and engineering, gaining insight into the unseen building blocks of the universe, its vast expanses. We began to dream of taking our civilization to other worlds.
And here we are. We are the height of the human project. There have certainly been some hiccups along the way, some engineering problems, some steps backward. But technology has advanced so quickly in recent times, we have things now that would have been unimaginable fifty, twenty, even ten years ago. That technology will surely permeate every part of life, and iron out any kinks.
We’re on the cusp: all this time, civilization has been steadily advancing, making life safer, happier, more just. If we can just stick it out over this hump, everything will be perfect.

II. Civilization

I would define a civilization … as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life … The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.

Civilization as we know it is a story, a narrative. It is as Jensen says “a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts,” but those institutions and artifacts all fall under a broader narrative that defines what they mean to us. That narrative attempts to answer where we have been, what we’re doing here, where we are going. The narrative has been rewritten in each culture and civilization, sometimes in each generation, but one of the defining features of the narrative of civilization is that it works to stamp out any other story, or even the idea that there could be any counter-narrative.
I have laid out my short interpretation of that historical narrative above, the fundamentals of which inhere in the perspective of civilized people. Namely this: that civilization has progressed steadily, ever upwards and outwards, producing a society ever more just, safe, healthy and happy.
And also this: there is no other way it should have been, even could have been – civilization as a kind of natural law.
And this: It is not a narrative, a crafted story. It is the simple truth.

III. Progress

We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

In spite of the fact that these truths should be self-evident, we don’t seem comfortable with letting them be – we have to reinforce them. This impulse often takes form in dichotomies in our language, between the civilized and the not. The not-civilized term is always derogatory, even an epithet of the deepest disgust:
uncivilized vs. civilized
primitive vs. advanced
backwards vs. forwards
low vs. high
inhuman vs. human
problem vs. solution

Enter the idea of progress. It essentially means moving forwards and not backwards. In the context of the civilization narrative, however, it implies expansion. Contraction would mean moving backwards – a pejorative aimed at the uncivilized. It would mean doing less of the things to which civilization is so wedded.
Therefore, expansion. Of territory, by force if necessary. Expansion of resource extraction from the non-human. Expansion of the narrative of civilization itself.
In our wake, an expansion of deserts, of human-controlled areas with little room for other creatures, of city pavement and cubist farmland. An expansion of toxicity. An expanding swathe of extinction.

Once in a while, one of us dares to raise a hand and say, What about reining this in a little? Do we really need to keep expanding all the time like this? Is that even possible?
The response is usually something like this: We cannot go backwards.
There the argument ends. Because we are wedded to forward momentum, to futurism. We are building a utopian project, and any slowing down will only delay it, even put it in jeopardy. This the narrative of civilization cannot abide.
Another (perhaps more honest) response is thus: What, do you want to go back to living in a cave?
In other words, any questioning of the project of civilization is equal to primitivism of the most abhorrent sort. It is a threat to all the comforts we want to enjoy and the ego-driven sense of our selves and our society as the pinnacle of human evolution.

This is partly the result of the civilized sense of time, and how we move through it, as if from a primitive past toward an idealized civilized future.
Of course history is much more fraught than this, even the history of civilization. There is much more contraction than the narrative would imply, as civilizations overtax their environment, collapse and disappear. There is no even upward trend toward a bright future.
But that is what the narrative implies: that we are in a kind of purgatory, and if we only roll our stone up the hill a few more times, we will reach a civilized heaven, where all our problems will be solved.
Another sense of time could be called indigenous time. It results from being entwined with the land in which we live, observing it closely, knowing our fate and that of all the people who will come after are bound up in it. It comes from thinking more like the things around us, unhumanizing our views a little.
The uncivilized (human and non) don’t have an agenda the way the civilized do. They don’t imagine permanent expansion, or overarching control. Instead the focus is on the cyclical, on survival. In the cycles of the day, the season, the year, there are things to be accomplished so that we may continue living. It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it. It doesn’t preclude material comfort, cooperation, art, music, drinking booze or getting up late. Nor does it preclude pain, grief, death. It merely imagines continuance, expansion and contraction, like the steady beat of a heart.

As progress implies only expansion, so it implies the continual increase in use of resources. The uncivilized who live on the land that holds those ‘resources,’ or are those ‘resources,’ must be dispossessed or destroyed. To rationalize this, we have to think of them as either unfeeling material or as disgustingly primitive.
If the uncivilized humans seem to become civilized (or they are enveloped by civilization), they can become the object of pity, of humanitarian concern. Through the lens of civilization, every other way of life looks like poverty.
When I visited east Africa, I saw many houses built out of sticks and mud, with thatched roofs. In the civilized view, this is the essence of poverty. The civilized humanitarian sees that and thinks, We have to get these people a modern house. The uncivilized view would be, this house meets the needs of its people, was built by hand from the materials of this land, and could be repaired or built anew, from this land.
It’s true the people there did not have the material wealth of people in the United States or Europe. That is what we measure poverty by. So the thinking goes, we have to raise these people’s quality of life, in other words, their material wealth. In other words, we have to extract more resources from other places and make them into objects so that these people can have what we have.
It doesn’t matter that the statistics about the resources used by industrial civilization paint a dire picture. Civilized progress suggests, if we just keep going, we can reach technological nirvana. Everyone can live in a McMansion.
This argument is pervasive. In the sphere of world hunger, it is put forth, by both well-meaning humanitarians and representatives of Monsanto, that we will need highly technological industrial agriculture to feed all 7 billion people on the planet, and the 10 billion there will be in the future. Never mind that the argument is cynically made by corporations. Never is the question put: should there be that many people? That would be inhumane. Never is it considered that perhaps civilization is itself inhumane, would gladly grind up all that’s beautiful in an effort to feed those 10 billion for a few short years, while they live in a human nightmare, the world a cored-out ant hive.

IV. In Extremis

If I sound angry or emphatic, it is because I am. I think I have reason to be. I am also existentially frustrated. I feel I am talking to an empty opera house, my words echoing over the vacant chairs.
I know there are others out there who think this same way. I know Derrick Jensen agrees with me. Most of the Dark Mountain Project, with whom I have published, is devoted to just this kind of thinking. But we are a small number, in the grand scheme, when nearly everyone from the right and the left, the poor and the rich, believe so totally in this narrative of civilization. I know that they believe it so much they will probably defend it with their very lives. Or mine. Or that of my future children.

I recently read a book on the Donner Party. The story is well known, mostly because of its lurid ending. The civilized narrative would have it that, along with a lack of food, the settlers suffered from a lack of civilization. The extremity of the situation reduced them to their brutal animal state. How else could they have resorted to cannibalism, the most extreme of civilized taboos.
There was something that bothered me throughout reading it, something that went unmentioned by the author, and it was this: that these settlers were civilized, carrying with them all the presumptions that entailed. They were moving through an uncivilized landscape, toward a place they intended to colonize and change to fit their needs, regardless of who or what existed there. In other words, the picture of civilized progress and expansion. Their ideas about themselves and what civilized people need to live were made manifest in their wagons and animals and all they carried with them, a direct material result of their perspective and ideology. Yet it was the inappropriateness of these technologies to the place, and their lack of connection with the landscape, that directly led to most of their hardships.
It was civilization itself, and how attached the settlers were to it, that caused the disaster. How could it be, then, that a lack of civilization caused them to eat each other? Perhaps they weren’t so uncivilized after all.
There was one story in particular which the civilized author could not bring himself to remark too much upon, but which stood out to me as a synecdoche of the entire situation. A relief party which was sent over the mountains to help the stranded settlers included two native Californian men. The rescuers gathered a group of settlers and tried to make it back over the pass. The going was difficult though, and some days into the journey, members of the party began to die of hypothermia and starvation. The remaining group ate the bodies in an attempt to survive.
Of this much everyone is aware. But the story goes on: the group continued to stumble through the mountains, lost and starving. At a certain point, their minds turned to cannibalism again. But this time it included murder.
They killed and ate the two native Californians, who had come to help them out of the mountains. They literally consumed the uncivilized to keep themselves alive.
These are the extreme means the civilized will accept as necessary.

From the beginning, civilization has been a culture of technology. From agriculture to iPhones. One of the presuppositions of civilization is that technology is always a boon. Negative consequences aren’t worth a thought. More technology is always better.
When we adopt a technology wholeheartedly, however, it becomes very hard to contract its use, even when its downsides become evident. Perhaps they won’t appear for some time, and by then we will be dependent upon it. Perhaps then, we will apply our minds, create a new technology to address these problems. But maybe that technology has issues of its own, and so on. This is a progress trap.
Currently, ‘alternative’ energy is gaining ground as ‘sustainable.’ It is alternative only in the sense that oil isn’t used directly to generate power. It is sustainable only in the sense of sustaining our industrialism, our so-called energy needs, at the current level. Yet it is lauded as ‘green’ – as the solution to the problem of climate change. Even if climate change were reduced or halted, we would still be faced with all that industrial civilization entails.
Such traps exist more in our ways of thinking than anything. They are the result of a civilized mindset. Hence, ‘green’ energy and industrial agriculture, technologies designed to both meet the demands of civilization (never contract, never go ‘backwards’) and to address the problems technology created. They are the result of a false dichotomy, a supposed choice between the current level of industrialism and consumerism and energy use; and living in a cave, wearing nothing but a rotting hide and hunting with a club.

VI. All Good Things

The narrative of civilization coopts all positives, eschews all negatives. Anything that can be seen as a positive, civilization will take credit for it. Anything negative, the narrative will say, it is a result of a lack of civilization.
The narrative says: all of our material well-being, our sense of safety, our connection to others, our sense of purpose, all of this is a result of civilization. Give up on it, and you will live in a Hobbesian state of nature. You will be reduced to cannibalism. The idea that indigenous, uncivilized communities lived for millenia and probably met all of the above needs is not part of the narrative.
Humanity, over the last few years, has statistically seen a reduction of human-on-human violence and material poverty. This is claimed by proponents as a result of progress and civilizing effects. In the longer view, however, progress has been the cause of that violence and depredation, as civilization expanded around the globe into uncivilized territories, via war and conquest. This is to say nothing of the violence perpetrated against the non-human, which has increased at an exponential rate during the same period. Indeed, in a neat package, the violence against the non-human is required to increase the material wealth of the impoverished.
If this violent trend has eased somewhat lately, civilization is not necessarily to be lauded for it. Perhaps the opposite should be given credit.

VII. Uncivilisation

The civilised eye seeks to view the world from above, as something we can stand over and survey. The Uncivilised writer knows the world is, rather, something we are enmeshed in – a patchwork and a framework of places, experiences, sights, smells, sounds...

This, then, is Uncivilised writing. Human, inhuman, stoic and entirely natural. Humble, questioning, suspicious of the big idea and the easy answer. Walking the boundaries and reopening old conversations. Apart but engaged, its practitioners always willing to get their hands dirty; aware, in fact, that dirt is essential; that keyboards should be tapped by those with soil under their fingernails and wilderness in their heads.

Paul Kingsnorth & Dougald Hine

I believe in a different way of living. One that doesn’t require extreme extraction, commodification, consumption. One that names things for what they are and have been: we say this wheat we are growing will become bread, will be our food. One that doesn’t assume it must be paid for and pass around the world for it to have value. That counts value in other ways than money, stocks, GDP.
Value in wildness and fecundity, not civilized order and predictable yields. Value in connection, with soil, trees, and animals, humans included. Value in stories and song. Value in work that doesn’t earn a dime, but means my family eats a meal, together.
If we want to live that way, if we would like not to be party to the world’s conflagration, we must analyze our civilized presuppositions. Without that we may well work all our lives and bring about the very thing we were trying to prevent.
I’d rather not buy into those civilized ideas without examining them for what they are. I’d rather not buy into the dichotomies wholesale, forward and backward, primitive and advanced.
I can’t write out definitively what uncivilized life should be, because it’s wild, untamed, won’t be crystallized or simplified in an ideology. It is individual, it is rooted in personal experience, it recognizes subjectivity. It is much broader in scope than civilization and its narrative. It doesn’t demand a complete renunciation of all technology, or that we attempt to live just like a bygone ancestor. It merely stands apart from the civilized narrative, which from that view seems narrow and calcified, unimaginative. It opens possibility.
That is the intent of this writing: not so much to tear down the cities and power plants, but neither to think of them as a foregone conclusion – instead to view them through a different lens, an uncivilized narrative.


  1. This is a lot to unpack. I agree with much of what you're saying regarding our collective delusion and reliance on exploitation, especially in terms of of the environmental havoc we've wrought on our quest. I'm not convinced though, that progress need be as monolithic and predatory as you argue.

    Also, I feel like you're strawmanning the forward/backward argument. As far as I'm concerned, we cannot go backward. Not because we do not want to, but because it is impossible. The multitudes cannot be unborn, we cannot relive yesterday. Our only options are continue on our disastrous path (what you call "forward") or to change directions for tomorrow. You argue that we should be concerned again with everyday survival, but I fear it is too late for that. If we are to survive this mess we've made, we must take the long view.

    I'll try to revisit this soon.


  2. I think we’re on the same page in a lot of ways, which is heartening to see. We’re both opposed to the extremity of exploitation that has occurred and see the danger in it. We both recognize a ‘collective delusion’ as you say.

    One of my main concerns, though, is with the idea that we have freed ourselves from that delusion, while we still operate from it’s basic presumptions. I’m not aiming that comment at you, but more at our advocates for ‘sustainability’ who are trying to meet our ‘energy needs’ (as merely one example.) What they are trying to ‘sustain’ is not life on the planet, but the current level of consumption and industrialism. They don’t change the basic presumption about how we approach the land we live on, or our relationship to the non-human. They merely switch up the energy input. Wind power and solar panels might help mitigate climate change, but so would reforesting land that has been denuded and healing the grasslands that have been decimated. That isn’t contemplated seriously however, because it’s not a technological fix and because civilization has already expanded into those areas and we would have to actively uproot that way of life.

    Meanwhile, big ‘alternative’ energy projects gain traction as a way of supposedly saving ourselves from ourselves. They don’t look at the land or sea differently than before, they don’t even look at energy differently. But it’s painted as green energy, as progress toward a sustainable future. Our lives don’t have to change that much, they say, we just need to add more of what we had before.

    This is but one example of this kind of thinking. And what’s so concerning is that so many of us have to buy into it, because we don’t seem to have another option for hope. Why do we have so few options for hope? Because of how a less-energy-intensive, less-technological future has been painted. See just about every distopian novel or film ever created.

    This is part of the reason I harp on the cultural idea of progress. We would like to place upon that term all our brightest hopes for the future. We would like to say it means people being healthy, happy, well-fed, at peace. But as I wrote, the narrative of civilization takes credit for those things, in order to justify itself. Meanwhile, the basic presumptions of that narrative are unsustainable.

    'Progress' like all abstract terms is culturally defined. Through many civilizations that have come and gone, though, there is this baseline idea of expansion of the civilized way of life, extracting resources from the as-yet uncivilized. Empire and colonialism. Capitalism and corporatism. Many names for the forward motion and outward expansion implied by civilized progress.

    I don’t see progress as monolithic, so much as insidious, an unquestioned viral thought. While civilizations might be separated by thousands of years and miles, it’s one of the main concepts that they share. The civilization as the center of the morally correct, its expansion by force justified thereby.

    We could try and co-opt the term, use the word to mean what we wish it would. But almost everyone in this culture has a basic agreement about what it means already: further technological control over and extraction from the uncivilized and non-human, in service of the advance of civilization. Whether they admit it or not, they believe it.

    This could be seen as a semantic argument, but the way we use words has a real effect. An analogy would be the use of racial epithets. I could try and say that I’m somehow using them in some positive way, but as a white male, there would be a certain understanding of what I meant when I use them, whether that’s my intent or not.

  3. In regards to the forwards vs. backwards dichotomy, I really do believe it has to do with our cultural concept of time. There’s a great quote from Paul Kingsnorth in that regard, from his excellent essay ‘Dark Ecology’: ‘Romanticising the past is a familiar accusation, made mostly by people who think it’s more grown-up to romanticise the future.’

    My point above was not to imply that we can or should go ‘backwards,’ but in fact that the dichotomy is false, because neither can we go ‘forwards’. We have the here and the now. Our culture likes to eschew that here and now (the realism of our land, the damage we are doing to it, the intensity and beauty and wildness of its life), preferring to live in thoughts of the future and how everything will be better. Concepts of how to make it ‘better’ are culturally derived i.e. they come from our interpretations of the past.

    No, we cannot all be Native American re-enactors. But why couldn’t we learn from their way of life, see what it has to offer us by way of solutions? The California native people lived here for at least 10,000 years with no appreciable collapse. I would call that the long view.

    The short view would be continuing on as we have, because I can watch Netflix all the time. Our current whims are more important to us than the long-term sustenance of the biosphere.

    The fact is, we are going to go ‘backwards’ in one way or another, given the unsustainable speed at which we are consuming the uncivilized world. Would we rather that fall were extreme, the bursting of a giant bubble? Do things like giant wind farms and solar arrays, Roundup-Ready GMOs, taking shorter showers, driving a hybrid car, do they really slow the growth of that bubble? Are they truly a change of direction, as you say?

    I have experienced living, here and now, in the modern day, via small-scale agriculture and foraging from the wild. It is definitely possible, and it doesn’t seem so bad to me, certainly not the image of utter poverty and back-breaking labor we’re sold. It takes some work, but living without working is for the right-wing bogeyman of the ‘welfare queens’ (and corporate executives).

    In that light, I would like to ask these questions:
    -What does ‘going backwards’ look like to you? Why is it impossible or undesirable?
    - You said there is either our current disastrous path, or a change of direction. What would that change look like?
    - Why is it too late to be concerned again with everyday survival?
    - What does progress mean to you? Or put another way, what does a positive outcome in the future look like?

  4. The Paul Kingsnorth essay: