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The End of False Progress: Origins of materialism, and implications for our future in the post-petroleum reality

What will be the alternative to today's consumerism and fear of material insecurity? This essay looks toward the next mainstream culture: Life after petroleum-culture collapse. To help explain today's lack of preparation for fundamental change, we examine historical practices particularly in Europe. This installment focuses on the history of food production vis-à-vis political power and worldview.

Not only has petroleum become an essential component of diet for modern societies, petroleum has also allowed people to separate themselves from the land that feeds them. With petroleum instead of humans and animals doing so much work to produce and distribute food, the direct skills and relationships have gotten rusty. Thus, new structures of land ownership have emerged, such as the agribusiness tracts of monocrops and toxicity that eliminate participation by masses of people.

During today's age of separation from food production, the social and political control of the masses has been refined and advanced. Order will break down when urban people scramble to seize or produce food on land they don't own. Although the land could feed many of them sustainably if Permaculture were implemented, the lack of preparation indicates upheaval and die-off ahead.
Semi-abundant food-supply for a large population in a degraded ecosystem is a hope of those considering “new” or unusual sources of food and materials. For example, seaweed, acorns and hempseeds could help feed untold thousands of people who today are relying on fossil-fueled factory farms for (polluting and unhealthful) meat and animal products. Those who are already eating plenty of grain, beans and green vegetables are not far removed nutritionally and psychologically from eating a lot of seaweed, acorns and hempseeds.

If we stipulate that such “unorthodox” foods are edible and proven as staples, it is just a matter of commencing their “production” or collection – the sooner the better. Knowledge is key and can resurrect traditions to assure palatability and efficiency.

We cannot include in the aforementioned diet the staple that was salmon. Perhaps it can sill return in abundant numbers, but too many spawning streams have been trashed by roads and related activity. Overfishing and pollution have taken their toll as well.

If only the end of the 1990s had featured the planting of fruit and nut trees all over urban and suburban areas throughout the petroleum-dependent world. By now the trees would be bearing well and offering some food-security. However, it is illegal in many cities to plant food-bearing plants and trees along roads, and parks don't offer very useful trees either –– yet.

Wisdom of cultivation and the subeconomy

Alongside the measurable market economy there has always been an often undetectable "informal other half of economic activity, the world of self-sufficiency and barter of goods and services within a very small radius... even in industrialized countries." [historian Fernand Braudel]. But no matter how creative people may be, the local environment eventually must provide the great majority of the source of life-giving resources. In a petroleum-free economy, such as France three hundred years ago, three or four acres of very local cultivable land were required to support one adult, allowing for crop rotation. Almost two hundred years ago in America one man, H. D. Thoreau, managed on one and a half acres.

Under Europe's conditions in the late Middle Ages it was usual for bread or a kind of grain to be half a family's food budget. Although grains fed many, it also implied slavery, as the dependence resulted in famine from time to time. On top of the vagaries of nature and farming, the market was an instrument of oppressive greed that hurt the many.

One of the few times in the Middle Ages in Europe that life wasn't tough for the peasants was the period after the Black Death because of helpful depopulation. In today's modern conditions, despite all our "progress", once people are forced to embrace life after WalMart, after Safeway, after Shell, etc., an agricultural solution for a community might mean the return of a person typically subsisting on bread or a grain for half the diet.

Alternatives to civilization

Although people now feel comfortable with the idea of civilization for their whole lives, whether they love it or feel stuck with it, we should keep in mind that civilization's grain-production basis is not the only way people have lived. Indeed, it is very recent in human experience. The rice field that developed in south China thousands of years ago became a factory and the basis of empire. During this development the non-cultivated areas were left to a full biological diversity, but this co-existence eventually came to an end as humans and civilization encroached everywhere. As long as we are being critical, let us ask: Why would we only want to imagine going back to the Middle Ages? There are easier ways of living off the land, if people are allowed to pursue them – involving more choice than whether to pursue livestocking. After Petroleum Collapse, more options be possible because the global economy will be almost entirely gone, and depopulation will also lend itself to limited foraging.

Some people will get through their days by forcing themselves to drive harnessed animals, to the near exclusion of almost any other human activity. In contrast, some areas rich in acorns will again support sustainable human populations, as was the case in the Peloponnese in ancient Greece. In ancient Mexico cultivation of corn was so easy that it provided the basis of their diet at a cost of only working one day in seven or eight, according to the season. However, it will be impossible for the whole overpopulated North American continent, for example, to all go back to the land for subsistence. Today people are conditioned to not want what they may soon crave after the petroleum facade crashes: they will want productive, healthy land and waters. However, for several hundred years the dominant culture has looked down upon those who relied upon the hoe rather than the plow, and even lower at the bottom in Europeans' notions of respect were the savages who lived (more easily) by gathering plants, hunting and fishing. Modern peoples are taught,–– in order to keep them in line as productive workers –– to view natural areas as inhospitable.

The precursor of the ultimate worker/consumer society –– the European system of hierarchy –– bestowed upon modern people the notion that hierarchy is inevitable and that its raison d'être socially is to enjoy luxury. The trouble is, an imbalance of essential needs amongst a population creates the basis of unnecessary shortages. The shortages and catastrophes became necessary by virtue of attitudes and maintaining high populations for generating the elite's wealth. "Living standards are always a question of the number of people and the total resources at their disposal." [Braudel]

Red meat, plagues, material culture

From the mid 14th century until sometime in the 18th century, Europe was plagued by frequent diseases whose pandemics decimated the population, especially the poor. During this period, and before, disasters of crop failure were all too frequent as well. The same means of population-reduction happened for centuries in other civilized/long-cultivated lands such as China and India, and these factors did not abate in those eastern lands as soon as they did in modern Europe.

Rather than argue how sustainable all these mostly agrarian societies were, or at what point overpopulation needed a correction the hard way, we can agree that the long experience of much deprivation and massive die-offs shaped peoples worldviews. Such that, when famine and plague nearly disappeared with the rise of technology and the spread of industrial power, people came to imagine there has been great progress –– despite deforestation, the loss of the commons, the yoke of capitalism –– so we now cannot even think about "going back." The illusion of sustainable industrial culture is a key issue, but also something to argue elsewhere as we have done in many Culture Change Letters.

During the same period of pre-Renaissance until the Industrial Revolution, Europe had the further example of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie each proving to the masses of people that affluence and private property has its advantages. More than advantages was the perception that wealth, material gain, manipulation of nature, abandoning tribal and community ties, and other trends in ways of living offered security and social acceptance. The commons were enclosed, factories started to displace rural peoples and force them into cities.

John Trudell, native American poet, has pointed out that when the European invasion of the Americas occurred, white people had lost their tribal connections centuries ago and had been persecuted for not being pious enough as doctrinaire Christians. As David Kubrin wrote in "Dead on Arrival: The Fate of Nature in the Scientific Revolution," folk medicines, the power of women and the "magic of the woods" were destroyed as much as possible in order for the emerging ruling order to consolidate power and control the masses. (see Kubrin's Culture Change magazine article

Consider the major delusion that die-off is behind us: the bigger we are, the harder we fall. And we have indeed grown very large on our petroleum diet of huge short-term agricultural productivity. Modern people have almost all bought into the idea of eternal gross entropy at the hands of cars, refrigerators, computers and the like. Every self-respecting, hardworking person does not want to think of him/herself as a polluting slave who has sold out for a little bag of silver, but "Mother Earth and Father Sky" have been betrayed. Institutional Science and the rest of society's propaganda machinery have told us everything is hunky-dory or, uhh, heading for some problems that technology and human ingenuity will just have to grapple with a little later, considering realpolitik!

Diet as a reflection of conditions and as a cause

Today’s availability for meat and animal products for the “modern diet” extends a former upper class/conqueror prerogative. Lower populated and often aggressive cultures that husbanded or moved herds with success did not have to rely on the lower-protein, lower-calorie diets of vast numbers of people toiling in agriculture.

Instead, conquerors and rulers ate what they wished with little regard to constraints for the masses of people. In addition to living on as much meat as they pleased, they could afford to reject the brown bran of wheat and rice and let animals have it. The people who still ate brown grains, at the bottom mass of the social pyramid, were also used as animals by the rich elite. Masses of people ate no end of vegetable matter even in heavily livestocked Europe. The elite that get the best fresh meat dined on white bread too, and in Europe was no more than 4% of the population. So it is no wonder the other 96% aspired to ape their oppressors and reach materialist comfort to perhaps save themselves from misery.

This historical pattern of meat and animal products as luxuries and status-symbols – even if common enough for certain rural folk in lower populated parts of northern Europe – has persisted and expanded. With the advent of industrial and consumer-convenience practices, today the world has a record number of rich or would-be rich eating meat and animal products.

Not only do financially comfortable people continue their meat traditions, or cling to the higher-pyramid social strata’s habits of meat; today’s aspiring affluent peoples gravitate toward more meat and animal products. “Grain used for (animal) feed in China jumped more than fivefold in the past two decades. Since 1960, the share of Chinese grain going to livestock tripled from 8 percent to 26 percent. In Mexico, the share jumped from 5 percent to 45 percent over the same period…” [Worldwatch, 1998]

Reliance on meat and animal products drags down the ecological capacity of land to provide not only maximum food for humans but to allow a large diversity of species. About twenty times as much grain-based protein must be grown as meat for the equivalent in protein. The effect of cattle on streams is devastating; in the U.S., livestock generates 130 times the waste that humans produce. Neither of these considerations are known to masses of people getting the mainstream/public education and ingesting corporate/government propaganda. When such people learn of the ecological (and therefore economic) considerations, they generally do nothing anyway to change their diets or other habits that waste land, water, energy and air.

Reasons for inaction on the individual level are different from factors in intransigence among profit-oriented ranch-subsidy corporations’ and governments’, regarding maintaining the status quo. Material security and clinging to notions of success and abundance dictate that an individual or family must strive to forever ape the affluent and the advantaged classes. “No, I will not eat just bean sprouts and corn; give me at least a pizza with sausage or pepperoni!” The pizza serves a minor source of some (tainted, nonorganic) vegetables.

Refrigeration and freezing – high-energy processes that they are – along with oil-fueled distribution (and preparation), allow meat and animal products to spread and keep coming to today’s huge population. The effect is to keep a growing, historically large segment of the population living comfortably, at least psychologically in that the “progress” of eating whatever one pleases for convenience, flavor and status is maintained. The health-effects of the resultant cholesterol and toxic additives in today’s meat and animal products, partly from just the plastic packaging’s migration of carcinogens into food, are of little concern when it comes to either daily survival today or glimpsing serious changes ahead affecting daily living. And besides, we are dumb, hungry animals like most species, and are a species that can be self-herded.


The implications for (non) sustainability, apart from the delusions of true, natural wealth being dissipated so rapidly today, are grave. Instead of modern suburbanites growing a fair amount of food in the form of grains and other vegetables in space used now by pavement and the biological pavement known as lawns, the consumers forego any form of local self-sufficiency, and so will soon starve. They certainly will not be able to grow much food on the hoof with even their suburban expanses until perhaps a die-off of petro-fed consumers relinquish space for pastures and slaughter houses. Keeping chickens, however, is anyone’s backyard option (if people could just think of living like a peasant instead of a TV-dinner imbecile facing socioeconomic collapse). Fish ponds also present an easy source of abundant food on a sustainable basis, if there is an ecological design to assure productivity (e.g., through Permaculture). [Vietnam relies successfully on fish pond aquaculture.]

The plants of civilizations – wheat, rice and maize (corn) – were and remain the backbone of diet, even for conquerors and tycoons who depend on soldiers and workers getting enough of those foods to expand the civilization or to greedily milk the wealth of the land and peoples.

Overall, “progress” in the individual’s mind depends on accepting imperialism and billionaires’ ability to “create” fortunes. How else to explain the stupidity of “voters” allowing predators and hogs to maintain “leadership” (authority)?

As long as “common people” can be bought off with meat-topped pizzas and bedazzling technologies such as their own refrigerators, cars, DVD’s, etc., today’s virulent form of civilization is on a course to slam into an unmovable wall of resource-limits. In fact, there is no time to avert the course or slow down in time to avoid devastating impact. Fastening seat belts will not suffice.

We will simply be left gazing at the shattered illusion of progress around our feet, if we are among the lucky who are left standing. The quick will have started running and grabbing what they can for short-term survival. The long-term survivors will immediately start planting and depaving for more planting, and some will remember discussions and writings on sustainability. Some will advocate, in a lawless environment, for living without central government. Predators and parasites from outside the community will become useless and passé, while tools of sustainability will be welcome currency.

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