Book review: Culture Change by Alexis Zeigler
Culture Change: Civil Liberty, Peak Oil, and the End of Empire
By Alexis Zeigler
136 pp. Ecodem Press – 2007. $10.00.
With superb insight, wisdom and erudition—one is almost tempted to say omniscience—Alexis Zeigler’s Culture Change charts an ambitious course for the future of our civilization. The book calls for a revolution to bring about what Zeigler terms a “conscious culture” capable of responding intelligently to our ecological crisis.
In a previous review of Culture Change, author Keenan Dakota pronounced that the encyclopedic Zeigler “has apparently read every book ever written.”* Dakota’s praise is deserved. Zeigler has a formidable grasp of ecology, anthropology, sociology, history and a variety of other disciplines, all of which he brings to bear in mapping out his vision for a sustainable future.
That’s the good news about Culture Change. The bad news is that the presentation does not match the level of the content. Not only does the book abound with typographical and grammatical errors, but it also repeats quite a bit in places. Both distract from its larger message. It is undeniably urgent to circulate information about our societal predicament; but a hurriedly turned-out manuscript runs the risk of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the message and the earnestness of the author.
Yet in spite of its mechanical failings, I can’t speak highly enough of the book’s arguments or the depth of its scholarship. In a nutshell, Zeigler contends that the Western industrialized world is a blind culture, social understanding in our society having been actively repressed by the ruling elite and other wealthy interests. If we can’t manage to rid ourselves of our social ignorance, Zeigler warns, it will be our undoing during the coming age of resource scarcity. The main point of Culture Change is thus to illustrate the ways in which we’ve been kept blind, and to propose a plan for making us socially aware, so that we’ll be able to make good choices going forward.
In what sense have we been kept ignorant? Zeigler argues that we lack an understanding of the basic forces behind social change in our society. For example, we tend to assume that we’re so much more advanced than the rest of the world because of our ideas and politics. But in reality, ecological and economic factors—namely, a fantastically abundant supply of natural resources and an economic system that thrives on our pillaging them as quickly as possible—are the reasons for our “advancement.”
An adherent of cultural materialism, Zeigler holds that economic and environmental factors determine policy and politics, not the other way around, as is commonly assumed. And he presents compelling evidence that many of the problems that are seen as having wholly political roots (for instance, poverty and encroachments on women’s access to reproductive choices) are actually the result of economic and ecological factors, and can be linked directly to the economic slowdown brought on by oil depletion.
The above tenets must be appreciated and internalized, insists Zeigler, or we’re bound to make disastrous mistakes in trying to address the challenges to come. For example, if we persist in our blindness, we’ll almost certainly continue to foment world hunger and species extinction through the production of biofuels in order to maintain our American, single family home lifestyle.
So what sort of approach will work in meeting the challenges ahead? This is where Zeigler’s notion of a conscious culture comes into play. A truly conscious culture would recognize that the “long curve” of ecology—so named because it moves slowly, over great spans of time—absolutely trumps the “short curve” of politics. With our fleeting attention spans, we tend to focus on the short curve; but it’s the long curve that will need to be successfully negotiated in the future.
The nub of the matter is that right now we are following the long curve (i.e., making minor lifestyle changes that do no real good), but we need to be leading it. The way to lead it is to reduce our energy consumption at a rate faster than the rate at which energy is depleting. If we do that, then we can still live amid plenty even as energy supplies at large are steadily dwindling. But if we don’t do that, Zeigler admonishes, we’ll descend into a totalitarian state of existence, just as many civilizations before us have done upon finding themselves besieged by acute ecological stresses.
How does Zeigler propose that we go about instilling social consciousness into the general population? To begin with, he would have us fundamentally restructure the educational system so that it emphasizes empowerment over conformity, which is precisely the opposite of what it does now. In addition to being empowered, students would also be imbued with the social intelligence necessary to create their own social institutions and to see the dominant society’s lies, witch hunting tactics and other deceptions for what they are.
Zeigler’s discussion of educational reform is more than a little sketchy and skimpy, considering how critical education would be in bringing about his conscious culture. (There’s no doubt, however, that Zeigler could easily write the syllabi for any number of classes that he might envision, so profound is the depth of his knowledge on these issues.)
Zeigler has plenty of practical recommendations on how to curtail energy consumption so as to stay well ahead of the long curve. Most of these suggestions are common sense to those involved in the peak oil and sustainability movements. For example, he reiterates the familiar advice regarding economic downscaling/relocalization, living communally and cooperatively, taking measures to help reduce population, limiting consumption of animal products and establishing local currencies.
The tips on communal living have the greatest ring of authenticity, drawing directly on Zeigler’s own experience in this area. Zeigler has happily lived among intentional communities his entire adult life so far. (And he has also constructed a good many sustainable homes himself, being an accomplished green builder as well as an activist and a thinker.) He also gets around totally without a car, using a bike around town and Amtrak to get to speaking engagements during his tours—as he did when he visited our group recently as part of his Culture Change Constructive Panic Amtrak Tour.
There’s no doubting Zeigler’s accomplishments or the validity of his arguments in Culture Change. He has thought and read deeply about these issues, and it shows. There’s neither a single gap to be found in his logic nor a claim made without hard evidence or examples. He writes cogently, compellingly and with the fevered urgency of a peak oil messenger not content to remain a Cassandra. Now he just needs to hire an editor.
* Alexis Zeigler, “Welcome to the Conscious Cultural Evolution Website!,” Conscious Evolution, http://conev.org/ (accessed Feb. 20, 2009).
The greatest danger of the ecological collapse of civilization is that we might not notice. There are a few taboos in political and academic discussion that serve to make our leaders look important and moral. We are not supposed to admit that our minds are directly influenced by the Earth on which we walk, or the degree to which we benefit from the exploitation of the global underclass. Our failure to recognize these things hides the impacts of ecological collapse. As much as those in the progressive environmental community are striving to have a realistic discussion of the combined impacts of peak oil, global warming, the breaching of other environmental limits, we seem to be largely ignoring the most obvious scenarios.