The lost civilization: Finding a reality-based frame of reference in the age of delusion
SUMMARY: We are a lost people. Here in the frantic, waning days of industrial civilization, we have almost completely lost our bearings. We no longer know who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, or why we are. And as we prepare to embark on a harrowing descent from our civilization’s peak, it would behoove us to find an honest, reality-based frame of reference. So c’mon everybody -- let’s get out our navigation equipment. It’s time we ‘found’ ourselves!
NOTE: This essay is a follow-up to my short story, ‘The Lost Civilization: A Dream’, posted at www.energybulletin.net/53103. The story ends, chillingly, with the line, “As a dull axe slams repeatedly into the back of my neck, we begin our descent.” …Yikes.
WE ARE LOST
We are a lost people. I think most of us feel it on some level, even if we can’t quite pin it down. We no longer know who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, or why we are. We are adrift on a plane of unreality that we have fashioned ourselves. And we have tragically disabled almost all means by which any true reality can be honestly observed.
The reality we can no longer detect is, of course, as complex as it is increasingly grim: (1) our well-advanced moral and physical degradation, (2) the anti-evolutionary state of our physical and social existence, (3) the late-stage temporal coordinates of our civilization, (4) the alarming and accelerating dilapidation of our biosphere coupled with a deep disconnect from the natural world around us, and (5) the profound loss of any larger purpose for our lives beyond perpetuating economic ‘growth.’
And our ‘lostness’ was, of course, arrived at purposefully. We have been shepherded here, and have arrived here without complaint – even enthusiastically. That we have come willingly, for the most part, does not lessen the evil of those who guided us here. It merely makes us complicit. We are both the victims and co-perpetrators of our downfall.
And as with most ‘wrong turns’ that are unwisely coupled with acceleration, our civilization-scale detour into the realm of the make-believe will not end well. And it will end soon, no doubt. The oil-powered, rube-goldberg contraption that is our industrial civilization is already coming apart at the seams in a steadily worsening orgy of environmental, economic, and social disintegration. The unspeakable tragedy currently playing out in the Gulf of Mexico is but one more entry in a long, growing, and increasingly destructive list of such industrial tragedies. Our civilization is a horror show now and it will become orders of magnitude worse before we reach anything resembling stability in the necessarily lower-energy and lower-complexity societies that follow. And nobody, of course, has any idea when these new steady states may arrive --or if they ever will.
We are simply as lost as lost can be. And hardly anybody in this country knows it yet -- on anything more than a superficial level, at least.
FINDING OUR BEARINGS
But even if we could finally summon the courage to admit that we are indeed lost as a civilization, what then should we do about it?
Should we jam down the accelerator even harder? This, of course is the Deepwater Horizon, mountaintop-removal coal mining, hydro-fracking shale-gas, and Alberta tar sands mentality. It is the mentality of apocalypse. Should we seek out and destroy those deemed responsible? Well, we might not like what we find. Should we turn on each other and fight for diminishing scraps? It is already known how this strategy ends. These are indeed seductive responses to our predicament, but we should know better.
No, we have a better choice open to us – one that will not ‘save’ us, but will at least allow us to confront our future productively and with dignity. And that is to renounce our cleverly-constructed floating bubbles of unreality and work to reclaim some reality-based frame of reference – some contact with the ever-present and increasingly pressing biophysical reality. We simply need stop for a minute, take a look around, and find our bearings.
For it is only by accurately identifying what is real – by illuminating and dismantling the elaborate web of industrial myths – that we can hope to move forward in any positive way within the coming maelstrom of industrial collapse. And while I suppose the swift and brutal revelation of reality will become the hallmark of our civilization’s decent, perhaps a head-start might make the trip down a little less painful.
So let’s try.
(Note: If you’re in a hurry -- or just pathologically impatient -- you can skip to the ‘Summary’ at the end. But, of course, then you’d miss out on some passably good stuff about rats biting off their feet, humans learning to talk, the slaying of alien mutants, and The Grand Post-Industrial Catabolic Orgy. Your loss.)
WHO ARE WE?
Well, let’s start out by stating who we are not. We are not rapacious consumers of synthetic food, mind-numbing electronic gadgetry, pre-packaged amusement, and fossilized sunlight. We are not unfeeling cogs in an elaborate, growth-producing, industrial apparatus. We are not interchangeable employees waiting for ‘recovery’, ‘stimulus’, or ‘job creation.’ We are not machines. Our children are not consumers-in-training. Nor are they machine-gun-wielding storm-troopers or brave inter-galactic slayers of alien mutants. (And they are not sick in the head – their civilization is.)
All this industrial nonsense, of course, defines who we have been PRETENDING to be. But it is not who we ARE.
No, we are discreet biological organisms – each of us. We are similar to each other, yet different in very many ways. Gloriously different. And we each have a calling – something we would gladly do for a lifetime for no money. Just for the joy of it. Something skilled and useful. Something productive. Something beautiful. Something ecologically sane. Something that humbly respects the inviolable Laws of Thermodynamics, the sanctity of life, and the sanctity of human communities.
And even if we don’t know what our calling is, we each have one. It is not your fault if you do not yet know what yours is -- they have been trying mightily to keep you from finding it. But they will be gone soon. So keep trying. Open your eyes, your heart, and let it come to you. It will. Grab onto it. Fall into it.
And in fulfilling our calling we become so much more than the pathetic consumers we have been pretending to be – we become PRODUCERS. We become makers and skilled users of useful tools. And in our necessarily-small, managed domains, we become competent conductors of the timeless ecological orchestra. We renounce our tragic industrial roles as bumbling conquerors and destroyers; as arrogant machine-part-wanna-bes. We become skilled partners with Nature, nurturers and protectors – proud stewards of beleaguered-but-still-glorious Creation.
THAT is who we are, who we CAN be. Enough already with our puerile industrial pretending. Limitless consumers, corporate cogs, and slayers of alien mutants, indeed!
WHAT ARE WE?
Look for a moment at the following timeline for our species that I scratched together from Nicholas Wade’s wonderful book, ‘Before the Dawn’ (2006). While my timeline is admittedly rough, I think it gives us important insight in answering the question at hand: WHAT are we?
5,000,000 ybp (years before present): Human lineage diverges from chimpanzees and other apes. Still very much ape-like.
2,500,000 ybp: Begin to fashion primitive stone tools. Still primitive head-size, body, and mind.
200,000 ybp: Obtain modern head and brain-size. Still primitive body and mind.
100,000 ybp: Obtain modern body appearance. Still primitive mind with no true language and only simple social structures.
50,000 ybp: Watershed evolutionary time period. Obtain modern mind and behavior, with modern language and complex abstract thought. Invent complex social structures (warfare, religion, trade) and vastly more complex tools. Fitted clothing is worn. A small band of maybe 150 individuals (from a population of maybe 5,000) leaves Eastern Africa to become the descendants of all humans today. But still only mobile hunter-gatherers with no agriculture, and lack of social skills required for larger settlements.
10,000 ybp: Climate stability and advanced cooperative skills allow invention of agriculture and the formation of modern, settled communities – the seeds of ‘great’ civilizations to come. Human influence on biosphere vastly increases.
200 ybp: Start of industrial civilization. Vast quantities of energy from concentrated fossilized sunlight replaces diffuse modern-sunlight-derived energy sources. Entropic destruction of biosphere greatly accelerated.
(Note: If that’s not just the coolest timeline you’ve ever seen, you’re in the wrong species, pal. I very highly recommend Wade’s very enlightening book.)
So what does this timeline tell us? For one, it tells us that we have really become who we are as humans VERY recently, geologically speaking. We are babies in this world – newborns, even. Secondly, it tells us that tight community organization is an evolutionarily-engrained social construct of our species. And I think it is important to note here that this evolutionarily-mandated proclivity towards tight communities is the antithesis of the atomizing industrial social organizations increasingly being thrust upon us.
We are simply not blank slates to be scribbled on with whatever economic ideology and social constructs are currently ‘in style.’ We are not soft clay to be molded into precise geometric patterns that fit snugly inside some ‘brilliant’ new economic, social, or governmental model.
No, we are the products of billions, millions, and thousands of years of evolutionary kneading. We are multi-cellular organisms. We are animals. We are primates. But specifically, we are intelligent, SOCIAL apes with the improbable gifts of language and complex abstract thought.
It is ultimately because of our history as a species that we are humans who simply NEED to be deeply close to other humans. We are evolutionarily predisposed to small, tight communities in which to participate in the intricate social interactions and face-to-face sharing of information that are the hallmarks of our species. That this close interaction and sharing doesn’t go on much anymore is the reason so many of us are going so damn crazy lately. It defies our very DNA. The junk-food mental diet of our modern info-tainment society is literally making us mentally ill.
In other words, industrial civilization has been trying to tell us that we are something we are not – that we CANNOT be. We simply cannot maintain healthy psyches in the atomized consumerist lifestyles industrial civilization is requiring of us. It doesn’t work. The seductive mirage of happiness we feel as we plunge into the immersion pools of our personal entertainment systems is just that – a mirage. It’s fake. It doesn’t work. Is it really any wonder our civilization is going collectively insane?
Social rats kept from being deeply social with other rats bite their feet off. Humans kept from being deeply social with other humans – i.e. kept from participating in real communities -- shoot up schools, they shoot up heroin, and they shoot up local economies. It was the height of foolishness to deny our biological need for community – to pretend that it could be replaced by the thin, saccharine substitute of ‘entertainment’ or ‘service to the country’ or ‘service to the global economy’ or whatever. And we are now, of course, paying a heavy price for this arrogance.
We are biting off our feet.
WHEN ARE WE?
You’d think that this one would be a no-brainer, huh? We’re beginning the second decade of the 21st century, dummy! Question answered. Next.
But wait. If our stated goal here is honesty, I think we need put aside the vacuous ‘dawn of the new century’ crap and peg this question to some aspects of biophysical reality. Namely, WHEN are we living in terms of the various key biophysical inventories and trends on this planet – trends that will surely define our future as both a civilization and a species. And THAT is not a vacuous question; it’s a vital one. And if we have the courage to look carefully at the accumulated geological and ecological information, the answers that reveal themselves become quite frightening indeed.
First, let’s disabuse ourselves of the ridiculous industrial myths about the present and the future. We are NOT on the cusp of glorious liberation from our evolutionary and ecological constraints – where science and technology will soon have mastered and harnessed the biosphere and its genomes for our own noble purposes. That is a lie. Nor are we are on the verge of possessing access to unlimited cheap energy – or even maintaining our current energy production, fossil or otherwise. That is a lie. Nor are we on the verge of ‘working through the current economic troubles’ and establishing a completely globalized economy run on the eminently fair and self-sustaining principles of the ‘free market.’ That is a lie. Nor are we still in an ecological ‘grace period’ where we have the appropriate societal momentum and sufficient time to avert monumental (and likely catastrophic) changes to Earth’s ecosystems. That is the biggest lie.
Lest you think I exaggerate on our potential for self-delusion here, try verbally inserting any of the above myths into literally any story from any mass media outlet. It will fit in perfectly with both the content and tone. Liberal or conservative -- the various media outlets are impressively united on the core industrial myths.
So, all of that is certainly not ‘when’ we are. No, the FOLLOWING is ‘when’ we are: We are in the early-stage catabolic collapse of the largest, most complex civilization this planet will likely ever see. It has already begun. We have already started down the back-slope of industrial civilzation’s finite life-cycle. We have already begun The Great Simplification, The Great Collapse, The Grand Post-Industrial Catabolic Orgy, The Long Emergency, The Long Descent, The Big One – whatever you wish to call it. It has begun.
And if it feels perhaps less-than-monumental to you at this point, it is for the same reason that any exponential function appears slow at the start – the slope takes a little time to ‘pick up speed.’ See Chris Martenson’s ‘Crash Course’ video for an enlightening tutorial on this. And just realize it can work in the ‘down’ direction even easier than the ‘up’ direction. And as we’ve spent the past 200 years frantically pumping it up, we’ve got a lot of ‘down’ comin’ our way. A LOT of ‘down.’ More ‘down’ than we’ll know what to do with. And all this ‘down’ will mean, as Jim Kunstler says, that just about everything in our society that depends on fossil-energy-derived complexity will cease to function very well – or at all. The simple life, here we come!
For we are losing our access to our beloved fossil energy and all the entropy-defying services it offered. (And likewise for any of the other ‘starting materials’ for our industrial lifestyle – minerals, potable water, clean air, etc.) We are witnessing the unraveling of the nascent globalized economy and all its tenuous connections that this fossil-energy made possible. And frighteningly, for a people so accustomed to the just-around-the-bend promises of immortality, we are entering the time when we will once again be subject to the same pitiless directives of ecology and evolution our species has labored under for 99.9% of our existence.
Oh yea, and did I mention the biosphere itself might be collapsing? Our favorite whipping-boy, the biosphere, seems to be having a bit of trouble. It appears to be collapsing or simplifying in a manner analogous to the human economy – key parts are falling away, and connections between still-existing parts are snapping like over-stressed bridge supports. And while obviously the biosphere has great powers of resiliency, past a certain point (that we’ve likely already passed) the recovery is in GEOLOGIC time, not ‘people’ time -- not on a time-scale that you and I would recognize.
And don’t discount the informed, scientific warnings of James Hansen and others that we may be in the process of climatically snuffing out the entire circus, clowns and all. (Not that even this warning-of-all-warnings would engender even a hint of urgency into the autistic industrial consciousness!)
So yea, THAT’s ‘when’ we are. It’s a little different than what they teach you in school, huh?
WHERE ARE WE?
Now, I don’t know where you are, but I can tell you where I am.
I am on the northeastern edge of the North American Piedmont geologic province. The terrain is composed of rolling hills. The soil is a (now) relatively thin reddish loam, underlain by a crumbly Triassic shale. It has a particular, pleasant smell – an ancient smell. Occasionally there is a small igneous ‘mountain’ poking up through the shale, surrounded by a heavier, grayish soil that is somewhat less pleasant to me (although not, of course, to the wild organisms that grow there).
The climate is temperate. It is difficultly-but-refreshingly cold in the winter, and gloriously hot and humid in the summer. It rains a sufficient amount – usually -- during the medium-length growing season. The weather is perhaps acting a bit strangely of late for reasons that I know, but can scarcely comprehend.
This is a good place to grow trees. There are oaks, maples, ashes, and hickories of various species, along with many other kinds. Fruit and nut trees also grow well here, some producing more abundantly than others without sprays. Vegetables grow abundantly with proper care, and they tend to be especially flavorful in the red soil. Grass grows richly much of the year, to the pleasure of my sheep and chickens -- and thus myself.
There are abundant birds, insects, amphibians, and mammals here -- at least in the places we allow them to inhabit. There are, of course, far fewer in number and type than could be here. But there are still enough to be ever-present if one opens their eyes and ears to them. I know some of them more intimately than others, but they are all beautiful to me.
Many people have lived here before me. Some have cared tenderly for the land, some have ignored it, and some have abused it horribly. Because of this abuse, it is, in many ways, far less healthy than it could and should be. I am saddened by this.
And there are, of course, many people here now – more than there ever were. Some care tenderly for the land; more ignore or abuse it – more every year. This both saddens and worries me. We perhaps have nascent kernels of real community; kernels that may have the potential to sprout and grow when conditions favor them. But I don’t know. In the coming times of stress, it could just as easily splinter violently across any number of latent differences. We’ll see. Maybe it’ll do both at once.
And so on.
So that’s a bit about where I am. I don’t claim to know even remotely enough about my place, but I’m at least starting to find out where I am. You likely live somewhere much different. What is there? Well, THAT is where you are.
In other words, we are not just anywhere. We ARE of course on the Earth. And we ARE, of course, on a certain region of a certain continent. But more importantly, we are -- each of us, in a very particular place. And each particular place has a very particular human and natural ecology that can and must be learned. Again, THAT is where we are.
It is time for us wake up from the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ industrial delusions of place – where any place is treated essentially the same as any other place; where we can hop around between far-flung places at a whim; where we can confidently depend that products mined or produced in far-off places can be had at a moment’s notice, if only the price is right. We desperately need to start opening our eyes to where we REALLY are, what is there, and what is required of us there.
Because when the fossil fuel security blanket is snatched away – and it will be soon – we will ALL suddenly be exactly where we are -- and nowhere else. We will then need to know our places as intimately as we know our own bodies: What is there and how is it structured? What can we fashion from it to help us live lives of quality? What makes our places healthy and productive? How do we tell when they are unhealthy? How do we restore them to health and sustain productivity? These place-based questions will indeed be THE key questions of the post-carbon era. And it is only by knowing exactly WHERE we are that we will be able to answer them.
So make sure you know where YOU are – and if you don’t, start finding out.
WHY ARE WE?
Ahhh, finally the age old question: Why are we here? Well, industrial civilization, that self-proclaimed pinnacle of humanity’s physical and intellectual achievements, has come up with the most inane answer imaginable: to ‘grow’ the economy. Huh? Seriously? That’s the best we could do? And they give Nobel prizes for pointing out new and exciting ways to do this. No worries that, on a finite planet, achieving this perpetual growth means necessarily snuffing out the biosphere in the process -- did you see that quarterly report for Monsanto! The darkness of this industrial goal is further revealed when we realize it shares eerie similarities with the goal of the cancer cell – namely, infinite growth in a finite medium, ‘til death do us part.
As I say to my students when they’re acting absurdly below their intelligence or maturity level -- c’mon.
I can think of scores of better reasons for our presence on this planet than to effectively commit mass suicide. It’s really not hard. What is hard, though, is to think of the BEST reasons – to cut through the crap and figure out the most noble and beautiful reasons we have for continually pushing bits of matter around the surface of this big blue marble.
Religions, of course, have much to say about why we’re here. So do professional philosophers. So do shoe-store clerks, bus drivers, and gravediggers. And so do I. In a previous essay (‘A Land & Community Ethic’ www.energybulletin.net/52973), I suggested (with the help of Aldo Leopold and our other great teachers) that we use the following as a sound justification and guide for our continued presence on this rock:
The Land & Community Ethic: Maximizing the health of human and biotic communities is the highest earthly goal of humanity. Thus, a thing is right when it tends to increase or preserve the health of both human and biotic communities. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
I then went on to flesh out some of the details of this ethic (again, with the help of our great teachers) in terms of the following angles: health, justice, nature-as-standard, scale, limits, ignorance, technology, morality, tradition, and some practical design principles.
While I, of course, was thoroughly impressed with my summarization of the accumulated wisdom of our great teachers, I realize it may be lacking in organization, clarity, and completeness. But I think it’s hard to argue with the basic premise (which is essentially Aldo Leopold’s & Wendell Berry’s – not mine). And I think that any other worthy justification for our presence here wouldn’t be too radically different – even the religious ones.
So I’ll let it stand at that. Come up with your own reason, if you like. But sheesh! --please come up with something better than ‘growing the economy.’ C’mon.
SUMMARY: A REALITY-BASED FRAME OF REFERENCE
Now, since this has been a long essay, let me just summarize our efforts at finding our bearings as a civilization -- at scraping away the delusions that will certainly hamper our efforts in constructively facing a very trying future. Here they are below – our coordinates, so to speak. We move on from here.
Who we are NOT: Consumers; interchangeable industrial employees.
What we are NOT: Socially-self-sufficient individuals realizing our fullest personal potential in a virtual reality of our own design.
When we are NOT: At the dawn of the information / technological / globalization / unlimited-clean-energy revolution.
Where are we NOT: Just any-place; everywhere and no-where; in cyberspace.
Why we are NOT: To ‘grow’ a potentially-infinite human economy within a finite biosphere.
Who we are: Potential producers; unique individuals with a true personal ‘calling’ -- even if it hasn’t yet been identified.
What we are: Intensely social apes who thrive only within the deep relationships and intricate web of close social bonds that constitutes a real community.
When we are: Beginning the down-slope of industrial civilization’s extended collapse: the Great Simplification, Kunstler’s ‘Long Emergency’, Greer’s ‘Long Descent’.
Where we are: In a very specific physical location with a unique & well-defined (but changeable) human and natural ecology.
Why we are: To maximize the health of human and biotic communities.
So does that clear everything up? OK, good. It’s about time we started being honest with ourselves.
Now let‘s now close with one more ‘being lost’ analogy.
CONCLUSION: FINDING OUR WAY BACK
The defining moment of being lost in the woods is not the sudden panicky realization that one is in deep shit. Anybody eventually comes to that conclusion. And neither is it the understandable jumble of Kübler-Ross stages that follow: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.
No, the defining, clarifying moment is acceptance -- when one finally sits down on a log, takes a deep breath, and says this: I am lost, but I am alive. I am me – a semi-intelligent and semi-healthy human being. I am in a temperate pine-oak woodland, somewhere in the vast New Jersey Pinelands. It is late Spring. It is beautiful here. My task is to stay alive, stay as comfortable as possible, and find a way to get back home.
In other words, the defining moment comes when we cut through the nonsense, the self-pity, the self-delusions, and finally have the courage to be brutally honest with ourselves about our predicament. It is only then that we can gain the reality-based frame of reference necessary for dealing skillfully with the cards at hand. Only then can we honestly answer the key questions: Who are we? What are we? When are we? Where are we? and Why are we? And only then can we muster our full capabilities as the clever apes that we are, and give ourselves a fighting chance of making at least a passably good lemonade out of the biophysical lemons we’ve been given.
Well, guess what? We are a civilization lost in the woods of delusion, with the hungry wolves of biophysical reality lurking in the shadows, and the storm-clouds of climatic destabilization gathering on the horizon. And we need to find our way back to reality. Soon. And then we need to start figuring out how to live there again – in whatever form it begins to take. But luckily, all the navigation equipment we need to get back to reality involves simply being honest with ourselves and each other. And all the tools we need to live there have already been invented. We just need to reclaim them. And we need to get pretty darn skilled with them pretty darned quick.
So can we do that? Can we at least try?
Good. And again, we should probably start soon.