The Collapse of Civilization and The Rebirth of Community
The consciousness and being of modern humans is almost incomparably different than that of ancient people. The myths and teachings of traditional civilizations indicate that in the first few millennium following the dawn of consciousness in humankind, “primitive” peoples lived and worked with an intimate and undifferentiated sense of the sacredness of Life in all the many forms in which it flourished in the world around them. This childlike acceptance by humanity of the wonder of Life might be said to reflect symbolically the early years of the individual human child.
As the countless generations passed, however, this sense of the sacred inherent in ancient peoples gradually diminished. As with all children, a growing striving toward self-determination and independence began to push out these childlike feelings of faith, trust and wonder. Slowly but eventually an important inflection point was reached. For ancient humans this point was probably most definitively embodied by the adoption and reliance on a strictly agrarian culture; human tribes and societies left off trying to work with Nature, and instead they gradually began to work Nature. And with this transition a new chapter was begun, whereupon humankind began to assert his own will upon the Earth and the larger World (and also, it should be mentioned, upon each other: there further emerged an increasing specialization of social life, along with the ensuing rise of “economy”, “politics”, “class” and other forms of social disparity). Thus was ushered in the birth of human civilization.
Children grow into young adults, and as they develop they gradually shrug-off their dependence in order to explore their individuality in the world. But as the saying goes, “there are two ends to every stick”. So with the positive aspect of a developing individuality comes also a corresponding negative aspect, which we might call the “arrogance of youth”—an arrogance born of equal parts naiveté and intemperate desire. This arrogance is perhaps a natural, or at least unavoidable, characteristic of the transition from childhood to responsible adulthood, but it introduces a distinct element of danger for that being’s development. That which we do now carries weight, and therefore consequence. For this reason, discernment and sobriety must be cultured within ourselves—requiring of us a long effort to harness the too-proud passions and pleasures of youth. In practical experience we find that many people are not able to make this transition successfully, and their maturity can become retarded or “frozen”, even though their body continues to "grow-up”. Ultimately such people tend to become a burden on their family and on society to some greater or lesser degree—a negative influence against which the more responsible adults must work all the harder. And sometimes, of course, their arrogance leads them to self-destruction.
The civilization we call the Modern World has already begun to collapse. It has quite simply played itself out. Just as we have sown the wild oats of our careless days, now we must reap the consequences. Some people hold that “the End is nigh”—the apocalypse or Armageddon or some such; others retort that such talk is foolish. But in sober truth, there is no need to believe in any religious or eschatological justifications to see that, for all its “vibrancy”, the Life or spirit of our civilization is spent. There are a great many indications of this for those who wish to verify it for themselves, although perhaps understandably, very few seem inclined to do so. Everywhere we look various critical systems fundamental to the framework of modern society show acute and accelerating degenerative developmental patterns. In my own research to understand this situation I've written many times about the coming economic depression descending upon the Western world, and also about the scarcity of resources needed to support the untenable population explosion of the past century, the dissolution of human dignity and autonomy under modern corporate rule, and of the resulting movements toward global warfare in the wake of these situations. I have not really addressed at any length the critical environmental degradation that modern civilization is inflicting on the world, since this is not an area that I have direct knowledge or experience in; although ultimately that is the foundation for everything else—the distressed soil in which all of these other weeds of crisis are growing. In fact, those who do have an understanding of the environmental crisis we face continually and consistently report that the corruption of soil, water, and atmosphere has already entered an irreversible trend toward imminent global catastrophe.
This is the place humankind has arrived at in our seemingly long history upon the Earth: the closing moments of our careless and misspent youth. A profound “rite of passage” has been reached, in which the details remain a mystery, but whereby we are most certainly being called to “put away childish things”. If ancient peoples lived with an inseparable sense of sacredness toward Life, yet they were still immature in collective experience, and had only limited ability to serve that sacredness responsibly. For modern peoples, therefore, the time has come whereby we are apparently being called to accept this responsibility for our creation and for our gifts. The coming cycle of maturation—for those who seek to become grown up human beings—will therefore be informed by the fundamental questions of this life-stage: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
All the crises of our day are preparing humankind for this passage. A great many will not make it. Perhaps none will. Success is never assured.
Human “civilization” has become, to put it bluntly, a scourge upon the Earth. Therefore if our relationship with the Earth is to continue, we will need to transform our human culture and society completely. Not simply chart a new course, or adopt new and widespread ideals; we need to break completely with this irredeemable corpus civitas, to be reborn anew as a species which understands its place and its duty. We will need to awaken to our true responsibilities toward Life, in all its manifestations. Many who’ve come to this same conclusion refer to this as a need for “spiritual” awakening, but I would suggest that this term has actually become too diluted and divisive in meaning. We are being asked to enter into a profoundly new way of being, both individually as well as collectively. Almost certainly, as many people believe, a “revelation” is indeed in store for us.
But to imagine a transformation which merely descends upon us from above with little effort on our part, and as we continue to live our lives in just any old way, is truly the foolishness of youth; while to similarly believe that our time and our work here in this World are of no importance is utter madness. No, those who would embrace this call toward responsible existence must begin now to do so responsibly. In other words, it is going to require great effort on our part to recognize what is required of us if we wish to help the human race mature into adulthood. And then we will need the fortitude to begin to adopt a new way of life in accordance with these demands.
Response and Responsibility
If we have recognized the comprehensive nature of the problems before us, we begin to see that our solutions will have to be correspondingly comprehensive. But first we should admit that for most people a complete change of lifestyle is not going to be an easy task to accept, no matter how convinced one might be of the need for it. People generally don’t embrace self-discipline, especially when it is less than clear what they are expecting to avoid or achieve. So perhaps before discussing the changes that are necessary it might be best to admit up front that whatever changes we choose, they will need to be both desirable to us as well as beneficial for us even in the event that all our predictions of crisis turn out to be only so much smoke. In other words, since it is never possible for any individual to possess a complete understanding of processes unfolding on a global scale, we have to respect the part of us that urges caution before action. In this way we will not be at war either with ourselves or with those we love who may not feel the desire to act as strongly as we do.
To provide an initial reference point, a common ground for discussion in this regard, we have been aided by the recent popularization of the Peak Oil issue. This concept helps in that it gives us a rather more tangible image of what lies before us, an image which can be quite useful to help us prepare. A thoughtful study of this issue shows us how much of our modern life is made possible and supported only because of the cheap availability of hydrocarbon resources. Without the incredible potential energy contained in these fuels, the infrastructure of the modern world will collapse. (Nevertheless, it is crucial to realize that fossil-fuel resource depletion is yet only a particular aspect within the larger, systemic set of problems, and it would be incorrect to identify this as the only issue facing us). And by way of this conceptualization, a world past its “peak” in oil, a great many people have already come to recognize a simplistic basis for preparation; thus there is already much discussion underway about what I would term “gearing up and getting out of the way”. The most realistic of these preparations, however, involve little more than establishing a more or less sustainable home with food and water and stocking up on supplies to get through an initial period of “shock”. And the overall vision associated with these preparations seems to be to begin to make the transition now toward a regressive way of life, such as that experienced by people living hundreds of years ago or more.
I have so far felt that there was something subtly wrong with this “survivalist” approach. And what I now have come to recognize is that this is not really a response to our problems—it’s merely a reaction. After all, what might this approach truly accomplish? For one thing, the coming crisis will probably not happen during the course of a mere year or two; it will likely unfold in wave after prolonged wave over many years. And one cannot live indefinitely by oneself; it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes one to support an adult as well. But more important, as I see it, is to recognize the flawed ideal (or more correctly, the absence of any ideal) behind such a “strategy”. The coming hardships we are soon to face represent the closure of a long period of development. Yes, there is the possibility for a “rebirth” of humanity to come about, but such renewal will not, and cannot, come about in continuity with the outcome of the present period; if it is to come about at all, it will have to mark a profound “break” with this present cycle. A tree which is dying cannot regenerate a new trunk; yet it can be born anew—in essence—with the sprouting of the seeds that it leaves behind.
This is an idea which actually goes against the modern rationalistic mantra of “progress”, so I suspect many will balk at it, preferring to hold to the more conservative belief that tomorrow will be only a somewhat different—inevitably more advanced—version of today. But to do so implies an ignorance of our fundamental situation and a reliance on a too-subjective view of history.
However my central argument is that I strongly feel we need to ask ourselves whether taking a regressive stance is going to be the most beneficial approach. Without doubt the human “system” is destined to experience a return to the mean—a level more commensurate with that experienced and lived by peoples for thousands of years—but that does not imply that no growth has been achieved by contemporary civilization whatsoever. Even should all our advances in the material world—our cities, our technologies, our global enterprise—crumble to dust around us, are we not still in many ways a different people than any of the ancient cultures which never knew these things? Even should we be forced to haltingly reinvent for ourselves the “primitive” world these people knew, would we not have our own wealth of knowledge, experience, and understanding to draw on and contribute? And if we are indeed at the apex of material history, do we not then have a unique vantage point from which to chart our course forward? What is crucial in this regard is that we work to separate that which is contingent on “modern life” from what is essential to human society and to Life itself.
If we can accept that humanity is being called into its adulthood, that it is being called toward maturity, responsibility and self-possession, then we must also accept that this transformation cannot come about absent any effort or intention on our part. It is this recognition, in my estimation, which the “survivalist” approach is lacking. While certainly not a judgment on any individual people, the approach itself could be said to be “sterile”: it does not contain within itself any force or living “blueprint” for inseminating a truly new type of human society—and therefore it does not comprise a truly transformative effort, one which holds its aim on a level above that of material self-preservation.
Those who truly wish to affect this degree of change must make it a conscious effort, an effort realized and made manifest within the medium of their lives. If we believe that such change is possible—that indeed it is needed and is perhaps even being asked of us—then we should begin making the first steps right now toward embracing it and realizing it in the world. We must begin, right now, to make our break with this untenable modern civilization, and gather together to explore a new way of being. In this way we might begin to sow the seeds of our future society; to create the first tiny microcosms of a more responsible human way of life. And thus our approach in preparing for the future will be one whereby we use the opportunities and the knowledge we have now—before the period of crisis has fully erupted—to begin planning and laying the foundation for the society we envision for tomorrow.
”The only sustainable world we can build is a world of decentralized local communities which minimize their resource demands but maximize human welfare and happiness. This is the world the ecovillage movement is both defending and rebuilding.” — Vandana Shiva, International College of Sustainable Living, India
Somewhere in the last decades of the 20th Century something unusual began to occur. At the height of human “progress”, in the full flower of technology, and at the pinnacle of economic and material success, a small trickle of people began to “drop out”. They were not giving-up on the world—on the contrary they were making immense efforts to seek out new, more authentic connections with it. A revolution had begun, without a doubt, but one devoid of leaders or fanfare or conditions; a simple, silent revolt led by thousands of people in dozens of countries, with none of them knowing that their other fellow revolutionaries even existed.
Most of them left their cities or their villages, although some did not. For a few it was only a matter of making slight “readjustments” to their way of life, but for most it required a substantial reconfiguration. The decision was an ideological one for many, but a decidedly practical one for all of them. Some slammed down on the brakes hard, while others down-shifted more slowly and gradually. In a myriad of ways and by a variety of means, these “drop-outs” began to sever the countless ties that bound them (or threatened to bind them) to the modern civilized world, and came together into communities of their own choosing.
Yet whatever their differences of culture and desires, still their reasons were invariably the same: they had quite simply outgrown the stale vision of the modern world that was offered them. They tired of “industrialism” and “consumerism”, and they rebuked “globalization” and “economic progress” as nothing more than con-artistry. They felt driven to return to the land, to the Earth—not as exploiters of it, however, but as stewards of it.
And all the while these first few communities dug in their roots and struggled to find their footing, the trickle was steadily growing….
Those of us who are just now coming to these same conclusions will find that we are joining this revolt at an exciting phase. In just the last ten years the “ecovillage” or “intentional community” movement has begun to be taken up by a more mainstream current. According to most estimates there are presently several thousand such communities worldwide, most of them in existence less than ten years. Figures vary, but the average successful community numbers between 50 and 300 people, although interestingly, few number more than 500 people. Each reveals its own distinctive character and principles. Some have organized around commonly-shared spiritual practices, while others come together to explore new models of community and culture.
A great many practice common aims for integrating sustainable methods of living such as permaculture, renewable energy, equitable economies, holistic healthcare, etc. But despite their wide range of seeming disparities, intentional communities worldwide have eagerly begun to integrate and to organize themselves, creating crucial networks for information, sharing and support…not to mention forging important trading routes which might one day lead toward a healthy inter-dependence and the reinstatement of truly localized, democratic enterprise.
Three basic themes have been identified as being more-or-less central to all such communities:
Ecological Responsibility — living in harmony with Nature and respecting the Earth’s resources
Social Responsibility — i.e. the elimination of hierarchical desires, encouraging non-violent relationships, the integration of spirituality with community
Green Economics — local, non-corporate, sustainable and responsible enterprise
And while it is not the purpose of this article to analyze the ecovillage movement in detail, it should thus be clear that what is happening now is vastly different from the utopian communities and religious communes and such which have dotted most of human history.
The ecovillage movement is an emergent response to the terminal phase of instability which the human system has reached. Yet they also differ fundamentally from “survivalist communities”, since their purpose and aim is rooted in hope and not in fear—in aiding the positive effort of transcendence and acceptance to prevail over the negative reaction of fight or flight.
Contemporary ecovillages are life boats, and they know it—voluntary refugees cutting themselves adrift of a sinking ship. Or conversely they might be seen as the hopeful seed-pods of a new human society, humbly germinating in the underbrush of decaying civilization.
Because while it would be wrong to say that a vision of impending crisis informs all of the people who choose to embrace such a responsible way of living, there can be little doubt that a peculiar sense of mortality is a primary catalyst: the urging to shelter themselves from the tragic destiny that faces a civilization grown top-heavy with competition, pride, selfishness and material worship. A civilization steeped in the too careless traits of adolescence. And still, what is guiding these movements is by no means a rejection of the world—it is, on the contrary, an intense love for it. Theirs is not an act of quitting but rather a redoubling of the effort to prevail.
The ecovillage movement represents the most complete and fundamental effort, on a whole-society scale, toward helping the forces of Life and of Being to predominate over the degenerative, downward pressures of materiality and “doing” which permeate modern civilization. And if we believe that there is any purpose in the fate of the world, then we have to acknowledge that the coming period of crisis presents the human race with a singular opportunity to decide whether we wish to take up such an effort or not.
Indeed if, as is said, every crisis also presents us with an opportunity, then we must marvel at how the modern current of life seems to be crafting a situation tailor-made to place the decision of maturation unavoidably before us all…or to put it in a slightly different light, realizing conditions which might serve to “separate the wheat from the chaff”.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.