Section Four

The Pathology of Civilization

Set down there not knowing it was Seattle, I could not have told where I was. Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.
John Steinbeck (1962)
his section cannot be cleanly separated from the preceding one. The distinction, such as it is, is one of emphasis. From pictures that help to reveal basic qualities of civilization, we shift in the direction of focusing on civilization's dynamics and what they portend, now and in the future. Fully established, mature civilization is what has to be grasped, in its malignant and metastasizing trajectory.

There is little doubt what is in store: a steadily bleaker and more debased reality, with civilization's ideological defenses eroding to naught. Of course, there have always been some who could see through the massive fraud. Consider William Morris, writing in 1885, a banner year for ascendant industrial capitalism:

I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future of "civilisation," which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before very long; what a joy it is to think of! and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. I used really to despair because I thought what the idiots of our day call progress would go on perfecting itself: happily I know that all will have a sudden check.

He was overly optimistic about the imminence of civilization's downfall, but the ranks of its critics, if this collection is any gauge at all, have certainly swelled since Morris registered his judgment.

Even some of the high priests of civilization have abandoned earlier enthusiasm or faith in its latest triumphs. In the contemporary era of high-tech mania and belief in the transcendent contributions of instantaneous computerized interaction, critics are beginning to multiply. By the mid-1970s even Marshall McLuhan came to some very uncelebratory conclusions. For example:

Electronic media reduce personal identity to vestigial levels that, in turn, diminish moral feeling to practically nothing.

Other critics have recognized that postmodernism, far and away the reigning cultural zeitgeist, plays an essential and duplicitous role in the defense of civilization. Qualities like cynicism, relativism, and superficiality are part of this, but the postmodern gloss on society goes even further in its efforts to deflect opposition to civilized social existence. Frederic Jameson captures this aptly when he asks

how it is possible for the most standardized and uniform social reality in history, by the merest ideological flick of the thumbnail, the most imperceptible of displacements, to reemerge as the rich oil-smear sheen of absolute diversity and the unimaginable and unclassifiable forms of human freedom.

Postmodernism seems to go beyond mere denial, to actually affirm our ghastly present. Aversion to analysis, a key postmodern trait, can and does obscure that which needs to be seen for what it is, and confronted. 

Max Nordau

Conventional Lies, or Our Civilization (1895)

his universal mental restlessness and uneasiness exerts a powerful and many-sided influence upon individual life. A dread of examining and comprehending the actualities of life prevails to a frightfully alarming extent, and manifests itself in a thousand ways. The means of sensation and perception are eagerly counterfeited by altering the nervous system by the use of stimulating or narcotic poisons of all kinds, manifesting thereby an instinctive aversion to the realities of appearances and circumstances. It is true that we are only capable of perceiving the changes in our own organism, not those going on around us. But the changes within us are caused, most probably, by objects outside of us; our senses give us a picture of those objects, whose reliability is surely more to be depended upon, when only warped by the imperfections in our normal selves, than when to these unavoidable sources of error is added a conscious disturbance in the functions of the nervous system caused by the use of various poisons. Only when our perceptions of things around us awake in us a feeling of positive discomfort, do we realize the necessity of warding off these unpleasant sensations, or of modifying them, until they become more agreeable. This is the cause of the constant increase in the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, shown by statistics, and of the rapidity with which the custom of taking opium and morphine is spreading. It is also the reason why the cultivated classes seize upon every new narcotic or stimulant which science discovers for them, so that we have not only drunkards and opium eaters among us, but confirmed chloral, chloroform and ether drinkers. Society as a whole repeats the action of the individual, who tries to "drown his sorrows in the flowing bowl." It seeks oblivion of the present, and grasps at anything that will provide it with the necessary illusions by which it can escape from real life.
Hand in hand with this instinctive self-deception and attempt at temporary oblivion of the actual world, goes the final plunge into eternal oblivion: statistics prove that the number of suicides is increasing in the highly civilized countries, in direct proportion to the increase in the use of alcohol and narcotics. A dull sensation of irritation, sometimes self-conscious, but more often only recognized as a vague, irresistible discontent, keeps the aspiring in a state of gloomy restlessness, so that the struggle for existence assumes brutal and desperate phases, never known before. This struggle is no longer a conflict between polite antagonists who salute each other with courtesy before they open fire, like the English and French before the battle of Fontenoy, but it is a pell-mell, hand-to-hand fight of rough cut-throats, drunk with whisky and blood, who fall upon each other with brute ferocity, neither giving nor expecting mercy. We lament the disappearance of characters. What is a character? It is an individuality which shapes its career according to certain simple, fundamental moral principles which it has recognized as good, and accepted as guides. Scepticism develops no such characters, because it has excluded faith in fundamental principles. When the north star ceases to shine, and the electric pole vanishes, the compass is of no further use the stationary point is gone, to which it was always turning. Scepticism, also a fashionable ailment, is in reality but another phase of the universal discontent with the present. For it is only by becoming convinced that the world is out of sorts generally, and that everything is wrong, insufficient, and contemptible, that we arrive at the conclusion that all is vanity, and nothing worth an effort, or a struggle between duty and inclination. Economy, literature, and art, philosophy, politics, and all phases of social and individual life, show a certain fundamental trait, common to all - a deep dissatisfaction with the world as it exists at present. From each one of these multitudinous manifestations of human intelligence arises a bitter cry, the same in all cases, an appeal for a radical change.
pp. 14­16 passim

William H. Koetke

The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and The Seed of the Future (1993)

ur generation is on the verge of the most profound catastrophe the human species has ever faced. Death threats to the living earth are coming from all sides. Water, sunlight, air and soil are all threatened. When Eskimos of the far north begin to experience leukemia from atomic radiation and Eskimo mothers' milk contains crisis levels of PCBs, we must recognize that every organism on the planet is threatened.

Compounding this crisis is the fact that the prime force in this affair, the civilized humans, are unable to completely understand the problem. The problem is beneath the threshold of consciousness because humans within civilization (civilization comes from the Latin, civis, referring to those who live in cities, towns and villages) no longer have relationship with the living earth. Civilized people's lives are focused within the social system itself. They do not perceive the eroding soils and the vanishing forests. These matters do not have the immediate interest of paychecks. The impulse of civilization in crisis is to do what it has been doing, but do it more energetically in order to extricate itself. If soaring population and starvation threaten, often the impulse is to put more pressure on the agricultural soils and cut the forests faster.

We face planetary disaster. The destruction of the planetary life system has been ongoing for thousands of years and is now approaching the final apocalypse which some of us will see in our own lifetimes. Far from being a difficult and complex situation it is actually very simple, if one can understand and accept a few simple and fundamental propositions.

The planetary disaster is traced to one simple fact. Civilization is out of balance with the flow of planetary energy. The consensus assumption of civilization is that an exponentially expanding human population with exponentially expanding consumption of material resources can continue, based on dwindling resources and a dying ecosystem. This is simply absurd. Nonetheless, civilization continues on with no memory of its history and no vision of its future.

Possibly the most important source of life on this planet is the thin film of topsoil. The life of the planet is essentially a closed, balanced system with the elements of sun, water, soil and air as the basic elements. These elements work in concert to produce life and they function according to patterns that are based in the laws of physics, which we refer to as Natural Law.

The soil depth and its richness is a basic standard of health of the living planet. As a general statement we may say that when soil is lost, imbalance and injury to the planet's life occurs. In the geologic time-span of the planet's life, this is a swift progression toward death. Even if only one per cent of the soil is lost per thousand years, eventually the planet dies. If one per cent is gained, then the living wealth, the richness, of the planet increases. The central fact must be held in mind of how slowly soil builds up. Soil scientists estimate that three hundred to one thousand years are required for the buildup of each inch of topsoil.

The nourishment of the soil depends upon the photosynthetic production of the vegetative cover that it carries. There are wide differences in the Net Photosynthetic Production of many possible vegetative covers. As a rule it is the climax ecosystem of any particular region of the earth that is the most productive in translating the energy of the sun into the growth of plants and in turn into organic debris which revitalizes the soil.

A climax ecosystem is the equilibrium state of the "flesh" of the earth. After a severe forest fire, or to recover from the injury of clearcut logging, the forest organism slowly heals the wound by inhabiting the area with a succession of plant communities. Each succeeding community prepares the area for the next community. In general terms, an evergreen forest wound will be covered by tough small plants, popularly called "weeds" and the grasses which hold down the topsoil and prepare the way for other grasses and woody shrubs to grow up on the wound. ("Weeds" are the "first aid crew" on open ground.) As a general rule, the "first aid crew" - the first community of plants to get in and cover the bare soil and hold it down - is the more simple plant community with the smallest number of species of plants, animals, insects, micro-organisms and so forth. As the succession proceeds, the diversity, the number of species, increases as does the NPP, until the climax system is reached again, and equilibrium is established. The system drives toward complexity of form, maximum ability to translate incoming energy (NPP) and diversity of energy pathways (food chains and other services that plants and animals perform for one another). The plants will hold the soil so that it may be built back up. They will shade the soil to prevent its oxidation (the heating and drying of soil promotes chemical changes that cause sterility) and conserve moisture. Each plant takes up different combinations of nutrients from the soil so that specific succession communities prepare specific soil nutrients for specific plant communities that will succeed them. Following the preparation of the site by these plants, larger plants, alders and other broadleaf trees will come in and their lives and deaths will further prepare the micro-climate and soil for the evergreens. These trees function as "nurse" trees for the final climax community, which will be conifers. Seedling Douglas Fir, for example, cannot grow in sunlight and must have shade provided by these forerunner communities.

The ecosystems of this earth receive injury from tornado, fire, or other events and then cycle back to the balanced state, the climax system. This is similar to the wound on a human arm that first bleeds, scabs over and then begins to build new replacement skin to reach its equilibrium state. The climax system then is a basic standard of health of the living earth, its dynamic equilibrium state. The climax system is the system that produces the greatest photosynthetic production. Anything that detracts from this detracts from the health of the ecosystem.

Climax ecosystems are the most productive because they are the most diverse. Each organism feeds back some portion of energy to producers of energy that supports it (as well as providing energy to other pathways) and as these support systems grow, the mass and variety of green plants and animals increases, taking advantage of every possible niche. What might be looked at as a whole, unitary organ of the planet's living body, a forest or grassland, experiences increased health because of its diversity within.

On a large scale, the bioregions and continental soils, substantially support sea life by the wash-off (natural and unnatural) of organic fertility into aquatic and ocean environments. This is a further service that these whole ecosystems perform for other whole ecosystems.

A few basic principles of the earth's life in the cosmos have now been established. Balance is cosmic law. The earth revolves around the sun in a finely tuned balance. The heat budget of the planet is a finely tuned balance. If the incoming heat declined, we would freeze or if the planet did not dissipate heat properly we would burn up. The climax ecosystem maintains a balance and stability century after century as the diverse flows of energies constantly move and cycle within it. In the same manner the human body maintains balance (homeostasis) while motion of blood, digestion and cell creation, flow within it. 

The life of the earth is fundamentally predicated upon the soil. If there is no soil, there is no life as we know it. (Some micro-organisms and some other forms might still exist). The soil is maintained by its vegetative cover and in optimal, balanced health, this cover is the natural climax ecosystem.

If one can accept these few simple principles then we have established a basis of communication upon which we may proceed. Anyone who cannot accept these principles must demonstrate that the world works in some other way. This must be done quickly because the life of the planet earth hangs in the balance.

We speak to our basic condition of life on earth. We have heard of many roads to salvation. We have heard that economic development will save us, solar heating will save us, technology, the return of Jesus Christ who will restore the heaven and the earth, the promulgation of land reform, the recycling of materials, the establishment of capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, Muslimism, vegetarianism, trilateralism, and even the birth of new Aquarian Age, we have been told, will save us. But the principle of soil says that if the humans cannot maintain the soil of the planet, they cannot live here. In 1988, the annual soil loss due to erosion was twenty-five billion tons and rising rapidly. Erosion means that soil moves off the land. An equally serious injury is that the soil's fertility is exhausted in place. Soil exhaustion is happening in almost all places where civilization has spread. This is a literal killing of the planet by exhausting its fund of organic fertility that supports other biological life. Fact: since civilization invaded the Great Plains of North America one-half of the topsoil of that area has disappeared.

The Record of Empire

The eight thousand year record of crimes against nature committed by civilization include assaults on the topsoils of all continents.

Forests, the greatest generators of topsoil, covered roughly one-third of the earth prior to civilization. By 1975 the forest cover was one-fourth and by 1980 the forest had shrunk to one-fifth and the rapidity of forest elimination continues to increase. If the present trends continue without interruption eighty percent of the vegetation of the planet will be gone by 2040.

The simple fact is that civilization cannot maintain the soil. Eight thousand years of its history demonstrate this. Civilization is murdering the earth. The topsoil is the energy bank that has been laboriously accumulated over millennia. Much of it is gone and the remainder is going rapidly.

When civilized "development" of land occurs the climax system is stripped, vegetation is greatly simplified or cleared completely, and the net photosynthetic production plummets. In the tropics, when pasture land is created by clearing forest, two-thirds of the original net photosynthetic production is eliminated. In the mid-latitudes one-half the net photosynthetic production is lost when cropland is created from previously forested land. The next step is that humans take much of even that impaired production off the land in the form of agricultural products so that not even the full amount of that impaired production returns to feed the soil.

This points out a simple principle: Human society must have as its central value, a responsibility to maintain the soil. If we can create culture that can maintain the soil then there is the possibility of human culture regaining balance with the life of the earth.

The central problem is that civilization is out of balance with the life of the earth. 

The solution to that problem is for human society to regain balance with the earth.

We are now back to everyone's personal answer concerning how to respond to the planetary crisis. Most proposals for salvation have little to do with maintaining the soil. All of these seek to alleviate the situation without making any uncomfortable change in the core values or structure of existing society. They only try to "fix" the symptoms. If we had a society whose core values were to preserve and aid the earth, then all of the other values of society would flow consistently from that.

In many important ways civilization functions in an addictive fashion. The culture of civilization functions so that it is self-destructive, suicidal; as if it were a person addicted to alcohol, white sugar, drugs or tobacco. The addict denies that there is a problem. The addict engages in the denial of reality. Civilization is addicted in the same way.

The civilized people believe they have an obligation to bring primitive and underdeveloped people up to their level. Civilization, which is about to self-destruct, thinks of itself as the superior culture that has answers for all the world's people.

An addict, truly, is a person who is emotionally dependent on things: television, substances, personality routines, other people, mental ideologies, total immersion in some cause or work. If the object of dependency is removed, addicts will experience insecurity, discomfort, distress, the symptoms of withdrawal.

Civilization is a cultural/mental view that believes security is based in instruments of coercion. The size of this delusion is such that the combined military expenditures of all the world's governments in 1987 were so large that all of the social programs of the United Nations could be financed for three hundred years by this expenditure.

Looking back at the simple principle which says that humans cannot live on this planet unless they can maintain the topsoil, demonstrates the delusion. The civilized denial of the imperative of maintaining topsoil, demonstrates the delusion. The delusion of military power does not lead to security, it leads to death. The civilized denial of the imperative of maintaining topsoil, and the addictive grasping to the delusion that security can be provided by weapons of death, is akin to the hallucination of an alcoholic suffering delirium tremens!

The first step in the recovery of any addict is the recognition that what they have believed is a delusion. The alcoholic must come to see that "just one more drink" is not the answer, the workaholic must come to see that "just a little more effort" will not provide feelings of self-worth and a rounded life. The bulimic must come to see that "just one more plate of food" will not provide emotional wholeness. Civilization must come to see that its picture of reality is leading it to suicide.

Here we have the whole of it. The problem is imbalance and the solution is to regain balance. Here we have the simple principle: if human actions help to regain balance as judged by the condition of the soil, then we are on the path of healing the earth. If the theory, plan, project, or whatever, cannot be justified by this standard, then we are back in the delusional system.

All of us are addicts. We of civilization have lost our way. We are now functioning in a world of confusion and chaos. We must recognize that the delusional system of civilization, the mass institutions and our personal lives, function on a self-destructive basis. We live in a culture that is bleeding the earth to death, and we have been making long-range personal plans and developing careers within it. We strive toward something that is not to be.

We must try to wake up and regain a vision of reality. We must begin taking responsibility for our lives and for the soil. This is a tall order. This will require study and forethought. Humans have never dealt with anything like this before. This generation is presented with a challenge that in its dimensions is cosmic. A cosmic question: will tens of millions of years of the proliferation of life on earth die back to the microbes? This challenge presents us with the possibility of supreme tragedy or the supreme success.

Creating a utopian paradise, a new Garden of Eden is our only hope. Nothing less will extricate us. We must create the positive, cooperative culture dedicated to life restoration and then accomplish that in perpetuity, or we as a species cannot be on earth.
pp. 9­14

Joseph A. Tainter

The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)

Understanding collapse: the marginal productivity of sociopolitical change

Not only is energy flow required to maintain a sociopolitical system, but the amount of energy must be sufficient for the complexity of that system. Leslie White observed a number of years ago that cultural evolution was intricately linked to the quantities of energy harvested by a human population (1949: 363­93). The amounts of energy required per capital to maintain the simplest human institutions are incredibly small compared with those needed by the most complex. White once estimated that a cultural system activated primarily by human energy could generate only about 1/20 horsepower per capita per year (1949: 369. 1959:41­2). This contrasts sharply with the hundreds to thousands of horsepower at the command of the members of industrial societies. Cultural complexity varies accordingly. Julian Steward pointed out the quantitative difference between the 3,000 to 6,000 cultural elements early anthropologists documented for native populations of western North America, and the more than 500,000 artifact types that U. S. military forces landed at Casa Blanca in World War II (1955: 81).

More complex societies are more costly to maintain than simpler ones, requiring greater support levels per capita. As societies increase in complexity, more networks are created among individuals, more hierarchical controls are created to regulate these networks, more information is processed, there is more centralization of information flow, there is increasing need to support specialists not directly involved in resource production, and the like.

Complex societies, such as states, are not a discrete stage in cultural evolution. Each society represents a point along a continuum from least to most complex. Complex forms of human organization have emerged comparatively recently, and are an anomaly of history. Complexity and stratification are oddities when viewed from the full perspective of our history, and where present, must be constantly reinforced. Leaders, parties and governments need constantly to establish and maintain legitimacy. This effort must have a genuine material basis, which means that some level of responsiveness to a support population is necessary. Maintenance of legitimacy or investment in coercion require constant mobilization of resources. This is an unrelenting cost that any complex society must bear.

There are major differences between the current and the ancient worlds that have important implications for collapse. One of these is that the world today is full. That is to say, it is filled by complex societies; these occupy every sector of the globe, except the most desolate. This is a new factor in human history. Complex societies as a whole are a recent and unusual aspect of human life. The current situation, where all societies are so oddly constituted, is unique. It was shown earlier in this chapter that ancient collapses occurred, and could only occur, in a power vacuum, where a complex society (or cluster of peer polities) was surrounded by less complex neighborhoods. There are no power vacuums left today. Every nation is linked to, and influenced by, the major powers, and most are strongly linked with one power bloc or the other. Combine this with instant global travel, and as Paul Valery noted, ' nothing can ever happen again without the whole world's taking a hand' (1962: 115 [emphasis in original]).

Collapse today is neither an option nor an immediate threat. Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power, or by an international financing agency; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates its population and territory will be absorbed by some other.

Although this is a recent development, it has analogies in past collapses, and these analogies give insight into current conditions. Past collapses, as discussed, occurred among two kinds of international political situations; isolated, dominant states, and clusters of peer polities. The isolated, dominant state went out with the advent of global travel and communication, and what remains now are competitive peer polities. Even if today there are only two major peers, with allies grouped into opposing blocs, the dynamics of the competitive relations are the same. Peer polities, such as post-Roman Europe, ancient Greece and Italy, Warring States China, and the Mayan cities, are characterized by competitive relations, jockeying for position, alliance formation and dissolution, territorial expansion and retrenchment, and continual investment in military advantage. An upward spiral of competitive investment develops, as each polity continually seeks to outmaneuver its peer(s). None can dare withdraw from this spiral, without unrealistic diplomatic guarantees, for such would be only invitation to domination by another. In this sense, although industrial society (especially the United States) is sometimes likened in popular thought to ancient Rome, a closer analogy would be with the Mycenaeans or the Maya.

Peer polity systems tend to evolve toward greater complexity in a lockstep fashion as, driven by competition, each partner imitates new organizational, technological, and military features developed by its competitor(s). The marginal return on such developments declines, as each new military breakthrough is met by some counter-measure, and so brings no increased advantage or security on a lasting basis. A society trapped in a competitive peer polity system must invest more and more for no increased return, and is thereby economically weakened. And yet the option of withdrawal or collapse does not exist. So it is that collapse (from declining marginal returns) is not in the immediate future for any contemporary nation. This is not, however, due so much to anything we have accomplished as it is to the competitive spiral in which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped.

In ancient societies the solution to declining marginal returns was to capture a new energy subsidy. In economic systems activated largely by agriculture, livestock, and human labor (and ultimately by solar energy), this was accomplished by territorial expansion. Ancient Rome and the Ch'in of Warring States China adopted this course, as have countless other empire-builders. In an economy that today is activated by stored energy reserves, and especially in a world that is full, this course is not feasible (nor was it ever permanently successful). The capital and technology available must be directed instead toward some new and more abundant source of energy. Technological innovation and increasing productivity can forestall declining marginal returns only so long. A new energy subsidy will at some point be essential.

It is difficult to know whether world industrial society has yet reached the point where the marginal return for its overall pattern of investment has begun to decline. The great sociologist Pitirim Sorokin believed that Western economies had entered such a phase in the early twentieth century (1957: 530). Xenophon Zolotas, in contrast, predicts that this point will be reached soon after the year 2000 (1981: 102­3). Even if the point of diminishing returns to our present form of industrialism has not yet been reached, that point will inevitably arrive. Recent history seems to indicate that we have at least reached declining returns for our reliance on fossil fuels, and possibly for some raw materials. A new energy subsidy is necessary if a declining standard of living and a future global collapse are to be averted. A more abundant form of energy might not reverse the declining marginal return on investment in complexity, but it would make it more possible to finance that investment.

In a sense the lack of a power vacuum, and the resulting competitive spiral, have given the world a respite from what otherwise might have been an earlier confrontation with collapse. Here indeed is a paradox: a disastrous condition that all decry may force us to tolerate a situation of declining marginal returns long enough to achieve a temporary solution to it. This reprieve must be used rationally to seek for and develop the new energy source(s) that will be necessary to maintain economic well-being. This research and development must be an item of the highest priority, even if, as predicted, this requires reallocation of resources from other economic sectors. Adequate funding of this effort should be included in the budget of every industrialized nation (and the results shared by all). I will not enter the political foray by suggesting whether this be funded privately or publicly, only that funded it must be.

There are then notes of optimism and pessimism in the current situation. We are in a curious position where competitive interactions force a level of investment, and a declining marginal return, that might ultimately lead to collapse except that the competitor who collapses first will simply be dominated or absorbed by the survivor. A respite from the threat of collapse might be granted thereby, although we may find that we will not like to bear its costs. If collapse is not in the immediate future, that is not to say that the industrial standard of living is also reprieved. As marginal returns decline (a process ongoing even now), up to the point where a new energy subsidy is in place, the standard of living is also reprieved. As marginal returns decline (a process ongoing even now), up to the point where a new energy subsidy is in place, the standard of living that industrial societies have enjoyed will not grow so rapidly, and for some groups and nations may remain static or decline. The political conflicts that this will cause, coupled with the increasingly easy availability of nuclear weapons, will create a dangerous world situation in the foreseeable future.

To a degree there is nothing new or radical in these remarks. Many others have voiced similar observations on the current scene, in greater detail and with greater eloquence. What has been accomplished here is to place contemporary societies in a historical perspective, and to apply a global principle that links the past to the present and the future. However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse. If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve, a reprieve paradoxically both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.

pp. 91, 193, 213­216
Theodore Roszak

Where the Wasteland Ends: 

Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society (1972)

The Great Divide

f it seems cranky to lament the expanding artificiality of our environment, the fact underlying that lament is indisputable, and it would be blindness to set its significance at less than being the greatest and most rapid cultural transition in the entire history of mankind. This is the historical great divide - in one sense, quite literally. In little more than a century, millions of human beings in Europe and America - and their number grows daily throughout the world - have undertaken to divide themselves off more completely and irremediably from the natural continuum and from all that it has to teach us of our relationship to the non human, than ever before in the human past.

It is all too easy to obscure this pre-eminent truth by conjuring up a picture of the remaining wide-open spaces - the mountain vastnesses and desert solitudes, the faraway islands and jungle thickets - and then to conclude, consolingly, that the cities will never encroach upon these remote corners of the earth. But that is wishful thinking already bellied by fact and supported only by a misconception about the way in which urban-industrialism asserts its dominance. True enough, urban sprawl may never swallow these outlying areas into its concrete and steel maw. But that is not the only way the supercity propagates its power.

Before industrialism, most cities stood apart as modest workshops or markets whose ethos was bounded by their own walls. They were an option in the world, one way of life among many possibilities. The supercity, however - or rather the artificial environment taken as a whole - stretches out tentacles of influence that reach thousands of miles beyond its already sprawling perimeters. It sucks every hinterland and wilderness into its technological metabolism. It forces rural populations off the land and replaces them with vast agra-industrial combines. Its investments and technicians muscle their way into the back of every beyond, bringing the roar of the bulldozer and oil derrick into the most uncharted quarters. It runs its conduits of transport and communication, its lines of supply and distribution through the wildest landscapes. It flushes its wastes into every river, lake and ocean, or trucks them away into desert areas. The world becomes its garbage can - including the capacious vault of the atmosphere itself; and surely outer space and the moon will in due course be enlisted for this unbecoming function, probably as the dumping ground for rocket-borne radioactive refuse.

In our time, whole lakes are dying of industrial exhaust. The seemingly isolated races of Lapland and Tierra del Fuego find their foodstuffs riddled with methyl mercury or radioactivity and must appeal to civilized societies to rescue them from their plight. The Atmospheric Sciences Research Center of Scotia, New York, reported in December 1969 that there was no longer a breath of uncontaminated air to be found anywhere in the North American hemisphere and predicted the universal use of artificial respirators throughout America within two decades. Thor Heyerdahl, sailing the Atlantic on the RA II expedition in 1970, reported finding not one oilfree stretch of water during the crossing. Jacques Piccard, exploring the depths of the seas, warned the United Nations in October 1971 that the oceans of the world would soon be incapable of sustaining aquatic life due to lead exhaust, oil dumping, and mercury pollution, with the Baltic, Adriatic, and Mediterranean seas already too far deteriorated to be saved.

But these now well-publicized forms of pollution are not the only distortive force the artificial environment exerts upon the rest of the world for the sake of sustaining its lifestyle. A single oil pipeline across the wild Alaskan tundra is enough to subordinate its entire ecology (ruinously) to urban-industrial needs. A single superhighway built from Sao Paulo to Brasilia deprives an entire rain forest of its autonomy. Already the land bordering the Trans-Amazonian Highway has been staked out for commercial and urban development; the beasts are being killed or driven off and the natives coerced into compliance with official policy by methods that include the strategic use of infectious diseases. The fact is, there remains little wilderness anywhere that does not have its resources scheduled on somebody's industrial or real estate agenda, less still that is not already piped and wired through with the city's necessities or criss-crossed by air traffic skylanes.


And then there is the tourism that goes out from the cities of the affluent societies like a non-stop attack of locusts. Whatever outright industrial pollution and development may spare, tourism - now the world's largest money-making industry - claims for its omnivorous appetite. There are few governments that have the stamina and self-respect to hold out against the brutal pressure to turn their land and folkways into a commercial fraud for the opulent foreigners who flatter themselves that they are "seeing the world." All the globe trotters really see, of course, (or want to see), is a bit of commercialized ethnic hokum and some make-believe wilderness. Just as the world becomes the dumping ground of the urban-industrial societies, it also becomes their amusement park. And how many are there now, even among my readers, assiduously saving up for summer safaris in Kenya or whirlwind junkets of "the enchanted Orient," without any idea what a destructive entertainment they are planning - but of course at bargain prices?

The remnants of the natural world that survive in the experience of urban-industrial populations - like the national parks we must drive miles to see, only to find them cluttered with automobiles, beer cans, and transistor radios - are fast becoming only a different order of artificiality, islands of carefully doctored wilderness put on display for vacationers and boasting all the comforts of gracious suburban living. It is hard to imagine that within another few generations the globe will possess a single wild area that will be more than thirty minutes removed by helicopter from a television set, an air-conditioned deluxe hotel, and a Coca-Cola machine. By then, the remotest regions may well have been staked out for exotic tours whose price includes the opportunity to shoot a tiger or harpoon a whale as a souvenir of one's rugged vacation adventure. The natives will be flown in from central casting and the local color will be under the direction of Walt Disney productions. The visitors - knowing no better - will conceive of this charade as "getting away to nature." But in truth it will be only another, and a climactic aspect of the urban-industrial expansion.

What we have here is an exercise in arrogance that breaks with the human past as dramatically and violently as our astronauts in their space rockets break from the gravitational grip of the earth. And the destination toward which we move is already clearly before us in the image of the astronaut. Here we have man encapsulated in a wholly man-made environment, sealed up and surviving securely in a plastic womb that leaves nothing to chance or natural process. Nothing "irrational" meaning nothing man has not made, or made allowance for can intrude upon the astronaut's life space. He interacts with the world beyond his metallic epidermis only by way of electronic equipment; even his wastes are stored up within his self-contained, mechanical envelope. As for the astronaut himself, he is almost invariably a military man. How significant it is that so much of our future, both as it appears in science fiction and as it emerges in science fact, should be dominated by soldiers - the most machine-tooled and psychically regimented breed of human being: men programmed and under control from within as from without. Can any of us even imagine a future for urban-industrial society in which the heroes and leaders - those who explore the stars and handle the crises - are not such a breed of warrior-technician?

What is there left of the human being in our militarized space programs but a small knot of neural complexity not yet simulable by electronic means, obediently serving the great technical project at hand by integrating itself totally with the apparatus surrounding it? In this form - cushioned and isolated within a prefabricated, homeostatic life space and disciplined to the demands of the mechanisms which sustain it - the astronaut perfects the artificial environment. Here is a human being who may travel anywhere and say, "I am not part of this place or that. I am autonomous. I make my own world after my own image." He is packaged for export anywhere in the universe. But ultimately all places become the same gleaming, antiseptic, electronic, man-made place, endlessly reproduced. Ambitious "world-planners," like the students of Buckminster Fuller, already foresee a global system of transportable geodesic domes that will provide a standardized environment in every quarter of the earth. Something of such a world is with us now in the glass-box architecture of our jet-age airports and high-rise apartments. One can traverse half the earth in passing from one such building to another, only to discover oneself in a structure indistinguishable from that which one has left. Even the piped-in music is the same.

These are momentous developments. The astronautical image of man - and it is nothing but the quintessence of urban-industrial society's pursuit of the wholly controlled, wholly artificial environment - amounts to a spiritual revolution. This is man as he has never lived before; it draws a line through human history that almost assumes the dimensions of an evolutionary turning point. So it has been identified by Teilhard de Chardin, who has given us the concept of the "noosphere," a level of existence that is to be permanently dominated by human intellect and planning, and to which our species must now adapt if it is to fulfill its destiny. So too, Victor Ferkiss has described technological man as a creature on the brink of an "evolutionary breakthrough." Technology, by giving man "almost infinite power to change his world and to change himself," has ushered in what Ferkiss calls an "existential revolution" whose spirit is summarized by the words of Emmanuel Mesthene:

We have now, or know how to acquire, the technical capability to do very nearly anything we want. Can we transplant hearts, control personality, order the weather that suits us, travel to Mars or Venus? Of course we can, if not now or in five years or ten years, then certainly in 25 or in 50 or in 100.

The Greek tragedians would have referred to such a declaration as hubris: the overweening pride of the doomed. It remains hubris; but its moral edge becomes blunted as the sentiment descends into a journalistic cliché. Moreover, we have no Sophoclean operations analyst to give us a cost-benefit appraisal of its spiritual implications. The sensibility that accompanies technological omnipotence lacks the tragic dimension; it does not take seriously the terrible possibility that a society wielding such inordinate power may release reactive forces within the human psyche, as well as within the repressed natural environment, that will never allow it to survive for the fifty or one hundred years it needs to exploit its capabilities. 

Our politics has become deeply psychological, a confrontation of sanities. But if our psychology is not itself to be debased by scientific objectification, then it must follow where liberated consciousness leads it; into the province of the dream, the myth, the visionary rapture, the sacramental sense of reality, the transcendent symbol. Psychology, we must remember, is the study of the soul, therefore the discipline closest to the religious life. An authentic psychology discards none of the insights gained from spiritual disciplines. It does not turn them into a scholarly boneyard for reductive "interpretations," or regard them as an exotic and antiquated mysticism. Rather, it works to reclaim them as the basis for a rhapsodic intellect which will be with us always as a normal part of our common life.

And suppose the reality we live by should experience such a revolution what sort of political program would follow from that?

Nothing less, I think, than that we should undertake to repeal urban-industrialism as the world's dominant style of life. We should do this, not in a spirit of grim sacrifice, but in the conviction that the reality we want most to reside in lies beyond the artificial environment. And so we should move freely and in delight toward the true postindustrialism: a world awakened from its sick infatuation with power, growth, efficiency, progress as if from a nightmare.

pp. 14­20, 414
Andrew Bard Schmookler

The Parable of the Tribes: 

The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (1995)

he ecosystem has been changed by civilization. To be sure, the old natural structures remain recognizable on the terrestrial landscape. But with the power of civilization over nature steadily growing, the old structures are subverted and replaced at an accelerating pace. 

The ancient and time-proven patterns of cooperation give way to a regime of domination. Where previously all were free though unwitting actors in a collective drama of mutual survival, with civilized man there arrived on the scene a single player to write the script for the whole. To secure a place in the old synergistic system, a life form had to serve the ecosystem as a whole. But, increasingly, the prerequisite for a continuing role in the drama of life is service to the single dominant animal. If you impinge upon the interests of man, out you go: wolves and bears and lions, who like the meat that man wants for himself, are eradicated or at best are forced to retreat to refuges. If you are useless to man, however teeming with life, you will be swept aside in favor of something that better serves the master: the magnificent forests are felled and replaced by the more paltry but more "useful" growths of man's cropland. The grains and cattle that fill men's bellies - these thrive and prosper.

Life comes to be governed by a calculus that is fundamentally corrupt. The well-being of man is what rules, regardless of how small may be the human benefit in relation to the costs in well-being to others of God's creatures. Never before has a creature had the power to arrange the pattern of life for its selfish ends, so never before has the ecosystem been corrupted. So pervasive is the assumption of the human right to selfishness in the ecosystem - might makes right - that even the arguments for human restraint tend to be couched in terms of human self-interest: natural environments have recreational value; species we extinguish might have proved later to have unforeseen usefulness to man.

There is one more case for restraint based on enlightened self-interest. Just as synergy is nature's tool for long-term viability, so also the wages of corruption are the long-run decadence and death of living systems. Man uses up the bases of his life. Look at civilization's most ancient homes: once fertile places, many of them now lie denuded of life's basic nutrients. Around the Mediterranean, across the "Fertile" Crescent, deforestation and overgrazing broke the grip by which the living system clung to the sacred soil. The spread of the deserts is accelerating. And for each bushel of corn that comes from Iowa, more than a bushel of its precious soil washes away. Man's corrupt pattern is feast and famine. In that order. The world's fisheries are overfished. The fragile forests of the tropics are recklessly harvested. Across the board, we take in for our use more than we or nature can replace. We have a strip miner's approach to our planet.

The decadence of civilization as a living system is demonstrated by the nonrecycling of its outputs as much as by the nonrenewal of its inputs. For every other living thing, its outputs function as essential inputs for others: the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchanges of plants and animals, the buildup of soil by the leaves that drop from trees and by the excrement of animals. Before civilization, life produced no toxic wastes. Now, our insecticides threaten birds and other species. Our burning of fuels may bring climatic disaster. Our output of fluorocarbons may expose us and other living things to harmful solar radiation. This generation is producing mountains of nuclear wastes that hundreds of generations to come will have to live with, and perhaps die from. And as frightening as radiation is, many warn us that we have more to fear from the countless tons of "conventional" wastes that lurk in thousands of dumpsites across the land. Out of the womb of civilization, down through countless Love Canals, issues forth death.

Civilization has shattered the intricate web that stabilizes the flows of life. Awareness of this problem has grown dramatically in just the past generation. But the direction of the biosphere's movement under the continuing impact of civilization is still toward degradation and decadence. So rapid is the growth and spread of civilization's power that the pace of death has, if anything, accelerated. All life is so interdependent that either we must stop the decline of the biosphere or fall with it, and we must be quick about it. Either quick, or dead. 

The intersocietal system of civilization, as we have seen in Part I, is an arena for unregulated conflict. Civilization created conflict by opening for each civilized society possibilities that fostered conflicts of interest among societies, and by creating an anarchic situation that mitigated against synergistic action on the basis of interests shared by those societies. The consequent ceaseless struggle for power has been unsynergistic in several ways.

First, conflict gains its role in the intersocietal system even against the wishes of mankind. The parable of the tribes shows how even if all or almost all wish to live in peace and safety the structure of the intersocietal system prevents this optimal condition from prevailing. As the general historic plague of war comes to mankind uninvited, so too there occur specific wars no one wanted and other wars that whether wanted or not, benefit no one. As I write, a war is ongoing between Iraq and Iran of which it has been said, "It is a war both sides are losing."

Second, even when some benefit from the conflict, the struggle for power is almost invariably a minus-sum game, one in which the net gains of the winners are more than offset by the net losses of the losers. War is costly to wage, and the destruction wrought by it leaves the whole less than it was at the outset. But beyond those factors is a more important one akin to the economic idea of diminishing marginal utility: in most human affairs the movement from some to much gives less benefit than the movement from none to some. It follows that the movement from some to none does more harm than the movement from some to much does good. Thus the conqueror who now governs two lands may be better off, but his gain is not commensurate with the loss of the vanquished who is dispossessed. The profit of gaining a slave is far less than the debit of losing one's liberty. Yet, the history of civilization is full of just such exchanges imposed by uncontrolled force. The pursuit of such conflict may be "rational" (in, again, the economic sense of the pursuit of self-interest) from the point of view of the stronger party who stands to gain, but it is irrational and unsynergistic from the point of view of the system as a whole. In natural systems, such choices do not arise, for the power to injure the whole for the sake of oneself is granted no one. The unprecedented anarchy of civilization's intersocietal system breaks down the order of synergy, making room for the corrupt regime of power.

Third, the immediate costs of the corrupt rule of power are compounded by the long-term social evolutionary costs. Out of the strife comes a selective process leading people along a path different from what they would have chosen. The absence of an overarching synergy to assure that intersocietal interactions serve the common interests has condemned mankind to domination by ever-escalating power systems largely indifferent to the well-being of human beings or other living creatures.

This unsynergistic determination of our social evolutionary destiny clearly endangers the long-term viability of the system. Never before has a living creature had in its repertoire of possible actions the virtual destruction of itself and other life on earth. Always, there might have streamed out of the indifferent heavens some giant meteor or comet or asteroid to burst the thin film of life's bubble on this planet. But living things, having been designed with no other options, always served life. For the first time in more than three billion years of life, a living system is relentlessly creating the means not of self-preservation, but of self-destruction.

pp. 224­227
Peter Sloterdijk

Critique of Cynical Reason (1987)

Cynicism: The Twilight of False Consciousness

And indeed no longer was anyone to be seen who stood behind everything. Everything turned continually about itself. Interests changed from hour to hour. Nowhere was there a goal anymore. The leaders lost their heads. They were drained to the dregs and calcified. Everyone in the land began to notice that things didn't work anymore. Postponing the collapse left one path open.

Franz Jung, Die Eroberung der Maschinen (1921)
he discontent in our culture has assumed a new quality: It appears as a universal, diffuse cynicism. The traditional critique of ideology stands at a loss before this cynicism. It does not know what button to push in this cynically keen consciousness to get enlightenment going. Modern cynicism presents itself as that state of consciousness that follows after naive ideologies and their enlightenment. In it, the obvious exhaustion of ideology critique has its real ground. This critique has remained more naive than the consciousness it wanted to expose; in its well-mannered rationality, it did not keep up with the twists and turns of modern consciousness to a cunning multiple realism. The formal sequence of false consciousness up to now - lies, errors, ideology - is incomplete; the current mentality requires the addition of a fourth structure: the phenomenon of cynicism. To speak of cynicism means trying to enter the old building of ideology critique through a new entrance.

It violates normal usage to describe cynicism as a universal and diffuse phenomenon; as it is commonly conceived, cynicism is not diffuse but striking, not universal but peripheral and highly individual. The unusual epithets describe something of its new manifestation, which renders it both explosive and unassailable.


The fertile ground for cynicism in modern times is to be found not only in urban culture but also in the courtly sphere. Both are dies of pernicious realism through which human beings learn the crooked smile of open immorality. Here, as there, a sophisticated knowledge accumulates in informed, intelligent minds, a knowledge that moves elegantly back and forth between naked facts and conventional facades. From the very bottom, from the declassed, urban intelligentsia, and from the very top, from the summits of statesmanly consciousness, signals penetrate serious thinking, signals that provide evidence of a radical, ironic treatment (Ironisierung) of ethics and of social conventions, as if universal laws existed only for the stupid, while that fatally clever smile plays on the lips of those in the know. More precisely, it is the powerful who smile this way, while the cynical plebeians let out a satirical laugh. In the great hall of cynical knowledge the extremes meet: Eulenspiegel meets Richelieu; Machiavelli meets Rameau's nephew; the loud Condottieri of the Renaissance meet the elegant cynics of the rococo; unscrupulous entrepreneurs meet disillusioned outsiders; and jaded systems strategists meet conscientious objectors without ideals.

Since bourgeois society began to build a bridge between the knowledge of those at the very top and those at the very bottom and announced its ambition to ground its worldview completely on realism, the extremes have dissolved into each other. Today the cynic appears as a mass figure: an average social character in the upper echelons of the elevated superstructure. It is a mass figure not only because advanced industrial civilization produces the bitter loner as a mass phenomenon. Rather, the cities themselves have become diffuse clumps whose power to create generally accepted public characters has been lost. The pressure toward individualization has lessened in the modern urban and media climate. Thus modern cynics - and there have been mass numbers of them in Germany, especially since the First World War - are no longer outsiders. But less than ever do they appear as a tangibly developed type. Modern mass cynics lose their individual sting and refrain from the risk of letting themselves be put on display. They have long since ceased to expose themselves as eccentrics to the attention and mockery of others. The person with the clear, "evil gaze" has disappeared into the crowd; anonymity now becomes the domain for cynical deviation. Modern cynics are integrated, asocial characters who, on the score of subliminal illusionlessness, are a match for any hippie. They do not see their clear, evil gaze as a personal defect or an amoral quirk that needs to be privately justified.

Instinctively, they no longer understand their way of existing as something that has to do with being evil, but as participation in a collective, realistically attuned way of seeing things. It is the universally widespread way in which enlightened people see to it that they are not taken for suckers. There even seems to be something healthy in this attitude, which, after all, the will to self-preservation generally supports. It is the stance of people who realize that the times of naiveté are gone.

Psychologically, present-day cynics can be understood as borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work. Indeed, this is the essential point in modern cynicism; the ability of its bearers to work - in spite of anything that might happen, and especially, after anything that might happen. The key social positions in boards, parliaments, commissions, executive councils, publishing companies, practices, faculties, and lawyers' and editors' offices have long since become a part of this diffuse cynicism. A certain chic bitterness provides an undertone to its activity. For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they certainly see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic (seelisch) apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. Others would do it anyway, perhaps worse. Thus, the new, integrated cynicism even has the understandable feeling about itself of being a victim and of making sacrifices. Behind the capable, collaborative, hard facade, it covers up a mass of offensive unhappiness and the need to cry. In this, there is something of the mourning for a "lost innocence," of the mourning for better knowledge, against which all action and labor are directed.

pp. 3­5
Fredric Jameson

The Seeds of Time (1994)

he paradox from which we must set forth is the equivalence between an unparalleled rate of change on all the levels of social life and an unparalleled standardization of everything - feelings along with consumer goods, language along with built space - that would seem incompatible with just such mutability. It is a paradox that can still be conceptualized, but in inverse ratios: that of modularity, for example, where intensified change is enabled by standardization itself, where prefabricated modules, everywhere from the media to a henceforth standardized private life, from commodified nature to uniformity of equipment, allow miraculous rebuildings to succeed each other at will, as in fractal video. The module would then constitute the new form of the object (the new result of reification) in an informational universe: that Kantian point in which raw material is suddenly organized by categories into an appropriate unit.

But the paradox can also incite us to rethink our conception of change itself. If absolute change in our society is best represented by the rapid turnover in storefronts, prompting the philosophical question as to what has really changed when video stores are replaced by T-shirt shops, then Barthe's structural formulation comes to have much to recommend it, namely, that it is crucial to distinguish between rhythms of change inherent to the system and programmed by it, and a change that replaces one entire system by another one altogether. But that is a point of view that revives paradoxes of Zeno's sort, which derive from the Parmenidean conception of Being itself, which, as it is by definition, cannot be thought of as even momentarily becoming, let alone failing to be for the slightest instant.

The "solution" to this particular paradox lies of course in the realization (strongly insisted on by Althusser and his disciples) that each system - better still, each "mode of production" - produces a temporality that is specific to it: it is only if we adopt a Kantian and ahistorical view of time as some absolute and empty category that the peculiarly repetitive temporality of our own system can become an object of puzzlement and lead to the reformulation of these old logical and ontological paradoxes.


Yet it may not be without its therapeutic effects to continue for one long moment to be mesmerized by the vision attributed to Parmenides, which however little it holds for nature might well be thought to capture a certain truth of our social and historical moment: a gleaming science-fictional stasis in which appearances (simulacra) arise and decay ceaselessly, without the momentous stasis of everything that is flickering for the briefest of instants or even momentarily wavering in its ontological prestige.

Here, it is as if the logic of fashion had, accompanying the multifarious penetration of its omnipresent images, begun to bind and identify itself with the social and psychic fabric in some ultimately inextricable way, which tends to make it over into the very logic of our system as a whole. The experience and the value of perpetual change thereby comes to govern language and feelings, fully as much as the buildings and the garments of this particular society, to the point at which even the relative meaning allowed by uneven development (or "nonsynchronous synchronicity") is no longer comprehensible, and the supreme value of the New and of innovation, as both modernism and modernization grasped it, fades away against a steady stream of momentum and variation that at some outer limit seems stable and motionless.

What then dawns is the realization that no society has ever been so standardized as this one, and that the stream of human, social, and historical temporality has never flowed quite so homogeneously. Even the great boredom or ennui of classical modernism required some vantage point or fantasy subject position outside the system; yet our seasons are of the post-natural and postastronomical television or media variety, triumphantly artificial by way of the power of their National Geographic or Weather Channel images: so that their great rotations - in sports, new model cars, fashion, television, the school year or rentrée, etc. stimulate formerly natural rhythms for commercial convenience and reinvent such archaic categories as the week, the month, the year imperceptibly, without any of the freshness and violence of, say, the innovations of the French revolutionary calendar.

What we now begin to feel, therefore - and what begins to emerge as some deeper and more fundamental constitution of postmodernity itself, at least in its temporal dimension - is that henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, nothing can change any longer. This is the sense of the revival of that "end of History" Alexandre Kojéve thought he could find in Hegel and Marx, and which he took to mean some ultimate achievement of democratic equality (and the value equivalence of individual economic and juridical subjects) in both American capitalism and Soviet communism, only later identifying a significant variant of it in what he called Japanese "snobisme," but that we can today identify as postmodernity itself (the free play of masks and roles without content or substance). In another sense, of course, this is simply the old "end of ideology" with a vengeance, and cynically plays on the waning of collective hope in a particularly conservative market climate. But the end of History is also the final form of the temporal paradoxes we have tried to dramatize here: namely, that a rhetoric of absolute change (or "permanent revolution" in some trendy and meretricious new sense), is, for the postmodern, no more satisfactory (but not less so) than the language of absolute identity and unchanging standardization cooked up by the great corporations, whose concept of innovation is best illustrated by the neologism and the logo and their equivalents in the realm of built space, "lifestyle," corporate culture, and psychic programming. The persistence of the Same through absolute Difference - the same street with different buildings, the same culture through momentous new sheddings of skin - discredits change, since henceforth the only conceivable radical change would consist in putting an end to change itself. But here the antinomy really does result in the blocking or paralysis of thought, since the impossibility of thinking another system except by way of the cancellation of this one ends up discrediting the Utopian imagination itself, which is fantasized, as we shall see later, as the loss of everything we know experientially, from our libidinal investments to our psychic habits, and in particular the artificial excitements of consumption and fashion.
pp. 15­19
labor of ludd

"The Medium Is the Medium" (1998)

There is no equal

borigines anticipate apocalypse . . . agriculture aggrandizes arable areas and allots acreage, assuming acquisition and alienation . . . arithmetic adds another abstract axis . . . authority appreciates art - already accepting abstractions' ascendancy - as authenticating appearances . . . by banishing bounty, bureaucracy's blackmail breeds bitterness between brothers behind benign banality; business believes boundless buying brings back bliss . . . commodity circulation controls current conditions completely, calculating career compulsions can continue consumption, constantly creating cruel contradictions colonized consciousness conveniently corrects . . . dreams distill dormant desires, darkly divining domestication's demise . . . disrupting digital discourse dialectically demonstrates dash, dooming domination's designer discipline . . . duplicity defeats double-driveling duplication . . . equations empower everyday economics, essentially encoding estranged enterprise; elegant ecstasy ebbs . . . "environment" equals earth? . . . formula for fusing formally fragments freed from function's foundation: fully further facsimiles' fulfillment; feature "forbidden" fantasies fully filmed; finally, fabricate fetishes fascinating feelings for fashion . . . grammar guards God's grave . . . hell, having had heaven's hallucinatory holiday haunting hearts held history's hostage has hardly helped humanist hacks humble humanity's heretical haughtiness . . . images interpose intermediating influences inside interests; insubordination is interested in insinuating illusion into identifying itself . . . insolence insists its intelligence is inimitably incendiary, illuminating irony's impotence . . . jaded judges jeopardize justice . . . know krime kan konjure komedy kontaining kommunist kontent . . . lush laughing lust launches life; lavishly littered likenesses, like, lessen life's lure . . . language licenses lucidity logically; licentious lucidity loosens letters' lock laughingly, luminously liquidating leaden logic . . . languorous looting lampoons leisure . . . modestly managing mas(s) o' (s)chism(s) mutilates multitudes . . . matchless money makes mastery meaningless: modern mutiny must make meaning menace mediation: mimicry means mirror's measure matched . . . nowadays nihilism's nothing new . . . our offense? outwitting our overseers' overly optimistic overthrow of our original obliquity . . . private property produces parity - parity portends production's ponderous planet-punishing progress piss-pure puns parody preyfully . . . quality's quintessence quickens . . . relentlessly replicating reality ripens revolts rigorously resisting representations' recuperations; rewinding reality readies really radical reversals . . . school separates subjects, subjecting subjectivity so separations seem sane . . . scholastic scavengers scrutinize signs showing signification scarcely sustains synthetic scarcity . . . theory that threatens to transform the totality transgresses tedium; tongue-twisters tend to turn topsy-turvy the tyranny that things talking to themselves typifies . . . the training that teaches those throngs to trade themselves to time trembles . . . ultimately, understanding urban upsurges' unconscious urges uncovers undercurrents undermining uncannily utility's ugly unwitting velocity . . . videos vacuous veneer veils vast vulgarities: vanishing vitality, vehement veracity, vapid vanity . . . we wage war with words, wither wage work's wearying world whenever we wield wit which wickedly widens wild wholeness while working wonders . . . xorcising xiled xistence's xtraordinary xhaustion xposes xchange, . . . your yoke yields yet you yawn . . . z z z z z.
from Dan Todd poster, Tucson, 1998
Des Réfractaires

"How Nice to Be Civilized!" (1993)

ssassinations, massacres, rape, torture: these crimes committed on the soil of what was once Yugoslavia are not the acts of uncontrollable savages; of educationless brutes. 

No doubt as children they respected the family order; are now more or less faithful followers of religions; earnest sports spectators; content with television. In a word, civilized folks; normal people doing what society expects them to!

Each crime demonstrates the success of diverse processes of domestication which have come to be grouped under the heading of Civilization.

The killers, rapists and perpetrators of massacres have exceptionally well internalized today's world's fundamental logic: to survive, other people must be destroyed! This mutual mangling takes different forms, such as economic competition or war. But the result is always the same: some must be trampled in order to give others the impression that they are living more and better. Being civilized signifies not taking your own life and those of others into consideration. It means letting your life be used, exploited and dominated by the always-superior interests of the collectivity where fate decreed that you would be born and live your life. And all for the financial, etc., gain of the authorities of the collectivity in question. In exchange for this submission one is granted the possibility of being accepted as a human being.

Being civilized, as well, signifies sacrificing your life, and those of others, when those in power attempt to solve their management problems with wars.

Aside from a variety of benefits they offer, wars represent a very efficient means of directing feelings of frustration against people who, designated as prey, can then be oppressed, humiliated and killed without qualms. Those who suffer, as with those who take pleasure in making others suffer, become nothing more than instruments of the conditions of social existence, conditions where lives are only important in relation to the use that can be made of them.

Following the collapse and decomposition of the Eastern Bloc, various local and international gangsters have slots to fill, markets to conquer and energies to channel through the formation of new States.

To help slice up the pie, local political gangs have deftly played the religious and nationalist cards. And if these cards work effectively, unfortunately, it is because, for a portion of the population, this collapse and decomposition have not been perceived as openings towards increased freedom. On the contrary, people have experienced an immense emptiness, one that has been alleviated with nationalist and religious alienations which are often decked out in a tawdry grab-bag of local history and culture. Instead of attempting to understand and attack the real causes of our material and psychological misery, too often people are thrown into a state of disarray. In response to this disarray identities are presented as lost values to be recaptured, whereas these values are simply the ideological cement which is the prerequisite to founding and developing State entities propped up by alliances between local and world powers.

Nor, in a climate of generalized terror, is there any hesitation to accomplish this by displacing populations and practicing ethnic cleansing in order to redistribute land. In this sense, don't the peace plan concocted in Geneva and hypothetical military intervention rubberstamp the UN's recognition of the dismemberment of the territory of former Yugoslavia? And if this is to be the price of pacification, everyone just closes their eyes to the cortege of horrors which is integral to every war.

The humanitarian organizations, cynically baptized non-governmental, present the dismal paradox of inciting pity and indignation while at the same time impeding the possibility of spontaneous participation from which true human solidarity could be born.

Today humanitarianism is a true lobby in a financial, human and media sense. But beyond generating money, humanitarianism carries out an educational task, channeling emotions and arousing feelings of indignation on a specific and regular basis - paving the way to military intervention in humanitarian wars which the State undertakes to supposedly respond to pressure from a public indignant about the very real massacre that they are powerlessly witnessing. This type of media treatment's only goal is to convince people that alone, by themselves, nothing can be done; the State is in a position to come to the rescue and will watch out for their political and strategic interests.

Everything is peachy because everyone consoles themselves with the thought that peace and democracy are a privilege - the proof being that elsewhere, over there, all is war and barbarism.

Denouncing the horrors, collecting accounts from the local population, exhorting the government to intervene, the media have the starring role in this affair. Real recruiting sergeants! As to be expected, the media have carefully edited out any information about those in ex-Yugoslavia who oppose the war, carefully concealing information about the 1992 massacres in Zagreb and Sarajevo which put the finishing touches on repressing the movements against the war. These horrors are necessary in order to lay the basis for the right to intervene, to invent humanitarian wars and to create tribunals to judge the vanquished. The "New World Order" which is coming into being is cutting its teeth on small nation-State wars; it provides the arms, then comes to the rescue, basing its activities in each case on a flood of horrifying images!

Thus exalting ethnic, national and religious identities goes hand in hand with gang warfare to constitute a new hierarchy of Godfathers.

In response to the growth of ghettos - those artificial separations and false communities which allow the world of money and domination to thrive on human life - we, as people who are refractory to the world around us, would like to affirm our community of struggle and aspirations with those who are refusing the war in ex-Yugoslavia, those who see themselves above all as "human beings who want to live" and not cannon fodder.

We are refractory to all that is the glory of civilization. We want to live human relations that would no longer be based on appropriation, competition and hierarchy, and would thus be relations in which individuals would no longer be obliged to treat themselves a priori as adversaries and enemies.

in Anarchy, Summer 1993, pp. 6­7

David Watson

"Civilization in Bulk" (1991)

aving had the privilege of living for a time among stone age peoples of Brazil, a very civilized European of considerable erudition wrote afterwards, "Civilization is no longer a fragile flower, to be carefully preserved and reared with great difficulty here and there in sheltered corners. All that is over: humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet. The same dish will be served to us every day."

Those words were written in 1955. Now that civilization is engulfing the entire planet, the image of the fragile flower has largely wilted. Some of civilization's inmates are remembering that the image was always a lie; other ways of seeing the world are being rediscovered. Counter-traditions are being reexamined, escape routes devised, weapons fashioned. To put it another way, a spectre haunts the heavy equipment as it chugs deeper into the morass it has made: the spectre of the primal world.

Devising escapes and weapons is no simple task: false starts and poor materials. The old paths are paved and the materials that come from the enemy's arsenal tend to explode in our hands. Memory and desire have been suppressed and deformed; we have all been inculcated in the Official History. Its name is Progress, and the Dream of Progress continues to fuel global civilization's expansion everywhere, converting human beings into mechanized, self-obliterating puppets, nature into dead statuary.

The Official History can be found in every child's official history text: Before the genesis (which is to say, before civilization), there was nothing but a vast, oceanic chaos, dark and terrible, brutish and nomadic, a bloody struggle for existence. Eventually, through great effort by a handful of men, some anonymous, some celebrated, humanity emerged from the slime, from trees, caves, tents and endless wanderings in a sparse and perilous desert to accomplish fantastic improvements in life. Such improvements came through mastery of animals, plants and minerals; the exploitation of hitherto neglected Resources; the fineries of high culture and religion; and the miracles of technics in the service of centralized authority.

This awe-inspiring panoply of marvels took shape under the aegis of the city-state and behind its fortified walls. Through millennia, civilization struggled to survive amid a storm of barbarism, resisting being swallowed by the howling wilderness. Then another "Great Leap Forward" occurred among certain elect and anointed kingdoms of what came to be called "the West," and the modern world was born: the enlightenment of scientific reason ushered in exploration and discovery of the wilderness, internal (psychic) and external (geographic). In the kingdom's official murals, the Discoverers appear at one end, standing proudly on their ships, telescopes and sextants in their hands; at the other end waits the world, a sleeping beauty ready to awake and join her powerful husband in the marriage bed of nature and reason.

Finally come the offspring of this revolution: invention, mechanization, industrialization, and ultimately scientific, social and political maturity, a mass democratic society and mass-produced abundance. Certainly, a few bugs remain to be worked out - ubiquitous contamination, runaway technology, starvation and war (mostly at the uncivilized "peripheries"), but civilization cherishes its challenges, and expects all such aberrations to be brought under control, rationalized through technique, redesigned to "serve human needs," forever and ever, amen. History is a gleaming locomotive running on rails - albeit around precarious curves and through some foreboding tunnels - to the Promised Land. And whatever the dangers, there can be no turning back.

A False Turn

But now that several generations have been raised on monoculture's gruel, civilization is coming to be regarded not as a promise yet to be fulfilled so much as a maladaption of the species, a false turn or a kind of fever threatening the planetary web of life. As one of History's gentle rebels once remarked, "We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us." The current crisis, occurring on every level, from the ecospheric to the social to the personal, has become too manifest, too grievous, to ignore. The spectre haunting modern civilization, once only a sense of loss, now has open partisans who have undertaken the theoretical and practical critique of civilization.

So we begin by reexamining our list of chapters not from the point of view of the conquerors but the conquered: the slaves crushed under temple construction sites or gassed in the trenches, the dredged and shackled rivers, the flattened forests, the beings pinned to laboratory tables. What voice can better speak for them than the primal? Such a critique of "the modern world through Pleistocene eyes," such a "geological kind of perspective," as the indigenous authors of the 1977 Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) document, A Basic Call to Consciousness, put it, immediately explodes the conquerors Big Lie about "underdevelopment" and the "brutality" of primal society, their vilification of prehistory.

The lie has most recently been eroded not only by greater access to the views of primal peoples and their native descendants who are presently fighting for survival, but by a more critical, non-eurocentric anthropology willing to challenge its own history, premises and privilege. Primal society, with its myriad variations, is the common heritage of all peoples. From it, we can infer how human beings lived some 99 percent of our existence as a species. (And even a large part of that last one percent consists of the experience of tribal and other vernacular communities that resist conquest and control in creative, if idiosyncratic ways.)

Looking with new/old eyes on the primal world, we see a web of autonomous societies, splendidly diverse but sharing certain characteristics. Primal society has been called "the original affluent society," affluent because its needs are few, all its desires are easily met. Its tool kit is elegant and lightweight, its outlook linguistically complex and conceptually profound yet simple and accessible to all. Its culture is expansive and ecstatic. It is propertyless and communal, egalitarian and cooperative. Like nature, it is essentially leaderless: neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, it is anarchic, which is to say that no archon or ruler has built and occupied center stage. It is, rather, an organic constellation of persons, each unique.

A Society Free of Work

It is also a society free of work; it has no economy or production per se, except for gift exchange and a kind of ritual play that also happen to create subsistence (though it is a society capable of experiencing occasional hunger without losing its spiritual bearings, even sometimes choosing hunger to enhance interrelatedness, to play or to see visions). The Haudenosaunee, for example, write that "[we] do not have specific economic institutions, nor do we have specifically distinct political institutions." Furthermore, the subsistence activities of Haudenosaunee society, "by our cultural definition, [are] not an economy at all."

Hence, primal society's plenitude resides in its many symbolic, personal, and natural relationships, not in artifacts. It is a dancing society, a singing society, a celebrating society, a dreaming society. Its philosophy and practice of what is called animisma mythopoetic articulation of the organic unity of life discovered only recently by the West's ecologists - protects the land by treating its multiplicity of forms as sacred beings, each with its own integrity and subjectivity. Primal society affirms community with all of the natural and social world.

Somehow this primal world, a world (as Lewis Mumford has observed) more or less corresponding to the ancient vision of the Golden Age, unravels as the institutions of kingship and class society emerge. How it happened remains unclear to us today. Perhaps we will never fully understand the mystery of that original mutation from egalitarian to state society. Certainly, no standard explanations are adequate. "That radical discontinuity," in the words of Pierre Clastres, "that mysterious emergence - irreversible, fatal to primitive societies - of the thing we know by the name of the State," how does it occur?

Primal society maintained its equilibrium and its egalitarianism because it refused power, refused property. Kingship could not have emerged from the chief because the chief had no power over others. Clastres insists: "Primitive society is the place where separate power is refused, because the society itself, and not the chief, is the real locus of power."

It is possible that we could approach this dissolution of original community appropriately only by way of mythic language like the Old Ones would have used. After all, only a poetic story could vividly express such a tragic loss of equilibrium. The latent potentiality for power and technique to emerge as separate domains had been previously kept at bay by the gift cycle, "techniques of the sacred" and the high level of individuation of society's members.

Primal peoples, according to Clastres, "had a very early premonition that power's transcendence conceals a mortal risk for the group, that the principle of an authority which is external and the creator of its own legality is a challenge to culture itself. It is the intuition of this threat that determined the depth of their political philosophy. For, on discovering the great affinity of power and nature, as the twofold limitation on the domain of culture, Indian societies were able to create a means for neutralizing the virulence of political authority."

This, in effect, is the same process by which primal peoples neutralized the potential virulence of technique: they minimized the relative weight of instrumental or practical techniques and expanded the importance of techniques of seeing: ecstatic techniques. The shaman is, in Jerome Rotherberg's words, a "technician" of ecstasy, a "protopoet" whose "technique hinges on the creation of special linguistic circumstances, i.e., of song and invocation." Technology, like power, is in such a way refused by the dynamic of primal social relations. But when technique and power emerge as separate functions rather than as strands inextricably woven into the fabric of society, everything starts to come apart. "The unintended excressence that grows out of human communities and then liquidates them," as Fredy Perlman called it, makes its appearance. A sorcery run amok, a golem-like thingness that outlives its fabricators: somehow the gift cycle is ruptured; the hoop, the circle, broken.


The community, as Clastres puts it, "has ceased to exorcise the thing that will be its ruin: power and respect for power." A kind of revolution, or counter-revolution, takes place: "When, in primitive society, the economic dynamic lends itself to definition as a distinct and autonomous domain, when the activity of production becomes alienated, accountable labor, levied by men who will enjoy the fruits of that labor, what has come to pass is that society has been divided into rulers and ruled, masters and subjects. The political relation of power precedes and founds the economic relation of exploitation. Alienation is political before it is economic; power precedes labor; the economic derives from the political; the emergence of the State determines the advent of classes."

The emergence of authority, production and technology are all moments within the same process. Previously, power resided in no separate sphere, but rather within the circle - a circle that included the human community and nature (nonhuman kin). "Production" and the "economic" were undivided as well; they were embedded in the circle through gift sharing which transcends and neutralizes the artifactuality or "thingness" of the objects passing from person to person. (Animals, plants and natural objects being persons, even kin, subsistence is therefore neither work nor production, but rather gift, drama, reverence, reverie.) Technique also had to be embedded in relations between kin, and thus open, participatory, and accessible to all; or it was entirely personal, singular, visionary, unique and untransferable.

Equilibrium Exploded

The "great affinity of power and nature," as Clastres puts it, explains the deep cleft between them when power divides and polarizes the community. For the primal community, to follow Mircea Eliade's reasoning, "The world is at once 'open' and mysterious. 'Nature' at once unveils and 'camouflages' the 'supernatural' [which] constitutes the basic and unfathomable mystery of the World." Mythic consciousness apprehends and intervenes in the world, participates in it, but this does not necessitate a relation of domination; it "does not mean that one has transformed [cosmic realities] into 'objects of knowledge.' These realities still keep their original ontological condition."

The trauma of disequilibrium exploded what contemporary pagan feminists have called "power within" and generated "power over." What were once mutualities became hierarchies. In this transformation, gift exchange disappears; gift exchange with nature disappears with it. What was shared is now hoarded: the mystery to which one once surrendered now becomes a territory to be conquered. All stories of the origins become histories of the origins of the Master. The origin of the World is retold as the origin of the State. 

Woman, who through the birth process exemplifies all of nature and who maintains life processes through her daily activities of nurturance of plants, animals and children, is suppressed by the new transformer-hero. Male power, attempting to rival the fecundity of woman, simulates birth and nature's fecundity through the manufacture of artifacts and monuments. The womb - a primordial container, a basket or bowl - is reconstituted by power into the city walls.

"Thus," as Frederick W. Turner puts it in Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, the "rise to civilization' might be seen not so much as the triumph of a progressive portion of the race over its lowly, nature-bound origins as a severe, aggressive volte-face against all unimproved nature, the echoes of which would still be sounding millennia later when civilized men once again encountered the challenges of the wilderness beyond their city walls."

No explanation and no speculation can encompass the series of events that burst community and generated class society and the state. But the result is relatively clear: the institutionalization of hierarchic elites and the drudgery of the dispossessed to support them, monoculture to feed their armed gangs, the organization of society into work battalions, hoarding, taxation and economic relations, and the reduction of the organic community to lifeless resources to be mined and manipulated by the archon and his institutions.

The "chief features" of this new state society, writes Mumford, "constant in varying proportions throughout history, are the centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes." In other words, a megamachine made up of two major arms, a labor machine and a military machine.

The crystallization of a fluid, organic community into a pseudo-community, a giant machine, was in fact the first machine, the standard definition of which, Mumford notes, is "a combination of resistant parts, each specialized in function, operating under human control, to utilize energy and perform work." Thus, he argues, "The two poles of civilization then, are mechanically-organized work and mechanically-organized destruction and extermination. Roughly the same forces and the same methods of operation [are] applicable to both areas." In Mumford's view, the greatest legacy of this system has been "the myth of the machine" - the belief that it is both irresistible and ultimately beneficial. This mechanization of human beings, he writes, "had long preceded the mechanization of their working instruments. But once conceived, this new mechanism spread rapidly, not just by being imitated in self-defense, but by being forcefully imposed."

One can see the differences here between the kind of technics embedded in an egalitarian society and technics-as-power or technology. As Mumford argues, people "of ordinary capacity, relying on muscle power and traditional skills alone, were capable of performing a wide variety of tasks, including pottery and manufacture and weaving, without any external direction or scientific guidance, beyond that available in the tradition of the local community. Not so with the megamachine. Only kings, aided by the discipline of astronomical science and supported by the sanctions of religion, had the capacity of assembling and directing the megamachine. This was an invisible structure composed of living, but rigid, human parts, each assigned to his special office, role, and task, to make possible the immense work-output and grand designs of this great collective organization."

Civilization as Gulag

In his intuitive history of the megamachine, Fredy Perlman describes how a Sumerian "Ensi" or overseer, lacking the rationalizations of the ideology of Progress which are routinely used to vaccinate us against our wildness, might see the newly issued colossus:

"He might think of it as a worm, a giant worm, not a living worm but a carcass of a worm, a monstrous cadaver, its body consisting of numerous segments, its skin pimpled with spears and wheels and other technological implements. He knows from his own experience that the entire carcass is brought to artificial life by the motions of the human beings trapped inside, the zeks who operate the springs and wheels, just as he knows that the cadaverous head is operated by a mere zek, the head zek."


It is no accident that Fredy chose the word zek, a word meaning gulag prisoner that he found in Solzhenitsyn's work. It was not only to emphasize that civilization has been a labor camp from its origins, but to illuminate the parallels between the ancient embryonic forms and the modern global work machine presently suffocating the earth. While the differences in magnitude and historical development are great enough to account for significant contrasts, essential elements shared by both systems - elements outlined above - position both civilizations in a polarity with primal community. At one extreme stands organic community: an organism, in the form of a circle, a web woven into the fabric of nature. At the other is civilization: no longer an organism but organic fragments reconstituted as a machine, an organization; no longer a circle but a rigid pyramid of crushing hierarchies; not a web but a grid expanding the territory of the inorganic.

According to official history, this grid is the natural outcome of an inevitable evolution. Thus natural history is not a multiverse of potentialities but rather a linear progression from Prometheus' theft of fire to the International Monetary Fund. A million and more years of species life experienced in organic communities are dismissed as a kind of waiting period in anticipation of the few thousand years of imperial grandeur to follow. The remaining primal societies, even now being dragged by the hair into civilization's orbit along its blood-drenched frontier, are dismissed as living fossils ("lacking in evolutionary promise," as one philosopher characterized them), awaiting their glorious inscription into the wondrous machine.

Thus, as Fredy Perlman argued, imperialism is far from being the last stage of civilization but is embedded in the earliest stages of the state and class society. So there is always a brutal frontier where there is empire and always empire where there is civilization. The instability and rapidity of change as well as the violence and destructiveness of the change both belie empire's claim to natural legitimacy, suggesting once more an evolutionary wrong turn, a profoundly widening disequilibrium.

The frontier expands along two intersecting axes, centrifugal and centripetal. In the words of Stanley Diamond, "Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. Each is an aspect of the other." Thus outwardly, empire is expressed geographically (northern Canada, Malaysia, the Amazon, etc.; the ocean bottoms, even outer space) and biospherically (disruption of weather and climate, vast chemical experiments on the air and water, elimination and simplification of ecosystems, genetic manipulation).

But the process is replicated internally on the human spirit: every zek finds an empire in miniature "wired" to the very nervous system.

So, too, is repression naturalized, the permanent crisis in character and the authoritarian plague legitimated. It starts with frightened obedience to the archon or patriarch, then moves by way of projection to a violent, numbed refusal of the living subjectivity and integrity of the other - whether found in nature, in woman, or in conquered peoples.

At one end of the hierarchic pyramid stands unmitigated power; at the other, submission mingles with isolation, fragmentation and rage. All is justified, by the ideology of Progress - conquest and subjugation of peoples, ruin of lands and sacrifice zones for the empire, self-repression, mass addiction to imperial spoils, the materialization of culture. Ideology keeps the work and war machines operating.

Ultimately, this vortex brings about the complete objectification of nature. Every relationship is increasingly instrumentalized and technicized. Mechanization and industrialization have rapidly transformed the planet, exploding ecosystems and human communities with monoculture, industrial degradation and mass markets. The world now corresponds more closely to the prophetic warnings of primal peoples than to the hollow advertising claims of the industrial system: the plants disappearing and the animals dying, the soils denuded along with the human spirit, vast oceans poisoned, the very rain turned corrosive and deadly, human communities at war with one another over diminishing spoils - and all poised on the brink of an even greater annihilation at the push of a few buttons within reach of stunted, half-dead head-zeks in fortified bunkers. Civilization's railroad leads not only to ecocide, but to evolutionary suicide. Every empire lurches toward the oblivion it fabricates and will eventually be covered with sand. Can a world worth inhabiting survive the ruin that will be left?

(Footnotes available from Fifth Estate.) 

in Fifth Estate, Summer 1991, pp. 40­46

Richard Heinberg

Memories and Visions of Paradise (1995)

n the last few years I have come to see that the economic and social foundations of civilization are inherently corrupt and corrupting. Only through a monumental act of insensitivity can one ignore the anguish of the native peoples of the world, who have endured 500 years (or more) of uninterrupted pillage and oppression at the hands of civilized conquerors. And in many respects the situation only seems to be getting worse. Recently the U. S. Congress approved a global trade agreement GATT that creates a nondemocratic de facto world government whose reins rest securely in the hands of huge and unimaginably wealthy transnational corporations, an agreement that promises to inflict vastly increased economic hardship on indigenous peoples everywhere. The forces of centralization and power have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams: the entire planet is becoming one great marketplace, with every last tree and stream, and the labor of nearly every human being, available to the highest bidder. Industrial civilization is invading every last corner of the globe, foreclosing every alternative, narrowing our options to two: participate or die. But participation is death, too. As the global population increases, as wealth and power become more concentrated, and as resources, habitats and species disappear, disaster looms.

Perhaps I did indeed sound too optimistic a note back in 1989. But my real point was not that Paradise is just around the corner. In fact, even then I believed that, if many current trends continue unabated, the next century is likely to be one of unprecedented horror and suffering for billions of people and for the rest of Nature as well. My point then and now, rather, is that this devastation is not the inevitable outworking of human nature. It reflects neither our origin nor our ultimate destiny, which I take to be no more sinister than those of any other creature on this planet.

It seems to me that we human beings, and particularly we civilized humans, are wounded and sick. We reproduce catastrophe because we ourselves are traumatized - both as a species and individually, beginning at birth. Because we are wounded, we have put up psychic defenses against reality and have become so cut off from direct participation in the multidimensional wildness in which we are embedded that all we can do is to navigate our way cautiously through a humanly designed day-to-day substitute world of symbols - a world of dollars, minutes, numbers, images, and words that are constantly being manipulated to wring the most possible profit from every conceivable circumstance. The body and spirit both rebel.

Yet we together - or any one of us - can in principle return at any time to our true nature, wild, whole, and free. This, it seems to me, has been the message of every true prophet. Whether through acquaintance with our "inner child," through meditation, through wordless play with small children or animals, or through a deep encounter with the wilderness, we can choose to activate the part of ourselves that still remembers how to feel, love, and wonder. Yes, we have a lot of work ahead and a lot of minds to change before we can together create sustainable, diverse, decentralized cultures and leave behind oppression, racism, sexism, and economic parasitism. But that process becomes much easier when we share a sense of possibility, an assurance that we do not have to invent Paradise so much as to return to it; an assurance that at our core we are pure, brilliant, and innocent beings. Our task is not to create ever more elaborate global structures to enforce social and environmental justice (though I sympathize with the motives of people who work toward that end), but to strip away the artificiality that separates us from the magical simplicity that is our wild biotic birthright.

The Paradise myth continues to transform my vision. Some day, perhaps, human beings will be a blessing to the biosphere of this planet. I can imagine new, wild cultures in which people will put more emphasis on laughter and play than on power and possessions, in which our intellects will be engaged in the challenge of increasing the diversity of life rather than merely in finding new ways to exploit it. The path from here to there is likely to be a rocky one, but the longer we wait, the less chance we will have of traversing it successfully.

pp. 276­278