Moa (My life, Our life, All of life) is a new workshop designed by Aaron D, who has a blog at http://www.ishthink.org/blog/aarond. According to Aaron’s announcement, the workshop was “inspired by a combination of books by author Daniel Quinn, Zen Buddhism, and Heart of Now practices”. I had the honor of attending the trial run of the workshop last May 12-13, and I must say that I enjoyed it immensely. In this culture, we don’t often have the opportunity to get into in-depth conversations about global “big picture” issues, and I think Aaron deserves a big round of applause just for having the courage to organize this event and assemble the resources to make it happen.
The weekend was filled with exercises and rituals, which helped to illustrate the concepts while breaking up the potential for over-intellectualization and despair. But the factual heart of the message was clearly inspired by Daniel Quinn’s novels. Two introductory talks set the agenda. On Saturday morning, Aaron carefully and majestically told the story of the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on this planet, starting with the Big Bang and the condensation of stars and solar systems, continuing with the appearance of single-celled organisms and then plants and animals, and culminating in the reigns of dinosaurs, mammals and finally the emergence of Homo Sapiens. The presentation itself evoked an image of timelessness by virtue of its length and pacing, yet no one seemed to be bored. It was as if the room was filled with the imagery of an ancient storyteller reciting poetry and myth around the campfire. Finally the point was brought home, that the human species has only occupied this planet for a tiny sliver of geological time.
The material was fully scientific, based on the latest findings of cosmology and evolutionary theory, although without any discussion of any lingering controversies. Among the attendees of the seminar, there was palpable agreement that this was the way it must have really happened. Not long ago, and even today among many Americans, the story would have been told very differently by literal Biblical creationists. I was struck by the irony that almost 150 years after Darwin, there is so little consensus in the world about how the story of the origins of mankind should be told. But on the other hand, 150 years is only a blink of an eye compared to the vastness of time, so perhaps there is no need for impatience.
Sunday morning, Aaron went though the major milestones of the history of civilization, while pointing out the ever-increasing growth of human population, culminating with the staggering six-fold explosion since the start of the Industrial Revolution, to its current figure of about 6.5 billion people. During this presentation, Aaron took the opportunity to present some basic concepts from Quinn’s novels. According to Quinn, early hunter-gatherer cultures lived by a rule of “limited competition”, in which it is forbidden to “hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food.” Thus, early man lived in a state of equilibrium with nature and other species. But with the rise of agricultural civilization in the ancient Near East (“totalitarian agriculture” as styled by Quinn) the rule of limited competition was overturned, and humans embarked on a war of conquest to subjugate the planet and all other species. In Quinn’s lingo, the peaceful “leaver” cultures were largely engulfed and replaced by a single “taker” culture.
Several other lecture presentations covered various aspects of the problems that have been wrought by the current explosion of “taker” civilization, with a special emphasis on desertification and loss of agricultural productivity, and the growing extent of world poverty and hunger. Aaron also discussed the prevalence of cultural illusions and misconceptions in American news media, including an unquestioning acceptance of “taker” ethics with respect to the natural world. Workshop participants were invited to imagine a different world, organized around the principal that the world exists for all species, not just humans.
For a better understanding of Quinn’s thought, I read his book “Beyond Civilization” as well as the “Public Teachings” appendix from “The Story of B”. Quinn has two prescriptions for his readers. Firstly, to seek changes in their lifestyle according to a principle of “less harm”, and to abandon the “taker” quest to live like “lords of the universe”, or “pharaohs” in a world of pyramid builders. Secondly, to find some way of making a living as part of a tribal unit outside of the corporate system. Quinn’s vision is that eventually, millions and then billions of people will simply abandon and walk away from “taker” culture in search of a simpler but more fulfilling way of life.
At the end of the weekend, workshop participants were asked to envision their personal responses to the ideas presented. Several of the attendees stated their intention to live more simply, explore local food production opportunities, and eat locally grown products. Others hoped to find rural communes where they could work towards sustainable self-sufficiency in a tribal environment. All of this is OK with me: I agree that living a simple lifestyle can be a significant boon for the individuals who make this choice, as well as a benefit to the ecology of the planet as a whole. Regarding rural communes, Quinn himself is skeptical: in Beyond Civilization (p. 117) he writes:
“In the paradigmatic utopian scenario, you gather your friends, equip yourselves with agricultural tools, and find a bit of wilderness paradise to which you can escape and get away from it all. The apparent attraction of this weary old fantasy is that it requires no imagination (being ready-made), can be enacted by almost anyone with the requisite funds, and sometimes actually works for longer than a few months. To advocate it as a general solution for six billion people would set an all-time record for inanity…. You don’t have to “go somewhere” to get beyond civilization. You have to make your living a different way.”
To which my reply is that of course not everyone can accomplish rural self-sufficiency. Even fewer can carry this out in a principled way without using cars and trucks, power tools and electronics. Most importantly: the further anyone progresses towards true sustainability and self-sufficiency, the more grievous sacrifices they need to make in terms of life experiences foregone (travel, entertainment, culture) as well as comfort and possibly health. But those who are able to succeed at communal self-sufficiency may emerge as survivors in the event of that civilization ultimately goes down into a post-apocalyptic, post-petroleum collapse. And if (as some are predicting) the world’s population is ultimately going to fall from six billion down to a post-industrial total of less than a billion, there’s something to be said for sheer survival.
In my view, Quinn needs to be understood first of all in terms of his passion for survival of the natural world and all of its diversity; as an entertaining novelist; and as a polemicist in favor of simple tribal lifestyles. Accuracy of anthropology is not his primary concern. However, there are some problems with his narrative. The last 50,000 years have been characterized by a series of mass extinctions of large animals, primarily herbivores. In Africa, where humans had been slowly evolving for millions of years, hunter-gatherer cultures reached their greatest extent and advancement starting about 40,000 years ago. At about that same time, some 50 genera of large mammals went extinct, representing 30% of all large species in Africa. On other continents, the sudden arrival of human hunters apparently caught nature more unprepared. Australia gained its first human inhabitants about 55,000 years ago, and during the 10,000 years following their arrival, some 44 species of large animals went extinct, every species exceeding 100 kg in weight, including such oddities as giant wombats, huge kangaroos, marsupial lions, and the Genyornis, a large flightless bird like the Dodo. In North America, seventy species went extinct about 11,000 years ago, more or less simultaneously with the first arrival of humans on the continent. These species included “condors with a sixteen-foot wingspan, ground sloths as big as hippos, three kinds of elephants, three kinds of cheetah and five other kinds of big cat, several kinds of pronghorn antelopes, long-legged, antelope-like pigs, an assortment of camel, llama, deer, horse, and bison species, giant wolves, giant bears and giant armadillos.” (Bryant). By 10,000 years ago, the human race had arrived in South America, where again most megafauna disappeared shortly thereafter. In the West Indies, a similar sequence of events took place only 4,000 years ago. There is abundant archaeological evidence of man’s success as a hunter of many of these species. Humans also used fire to clear vast areas, presumably to facilitate hunting and possibly also to reduce habitat for large carnivores. Early man probably did not hunt those large carnivores directly, but nevertheless many species became extinct, either because of habitat loss or loss of the large herbivores which had been their prey.
It’s very possible that human predation may not have been solely responsible for all these extinctions. Other factors such as climate change or disease may have been significant as well. What is impossible for me to believe, is that these hunter-gatherer cultures were inhibited in their hunting efforts by any ethical compunctions such as Quinn’s rule of limited competition. On the contrary, early hunter-gatherers clearly were attempting to carry out a campaign of total unlimited warfare against the pleistocene megafauna; a war which, for whatever reason, was always brought to completion within a short time after their arrival in any new continent aside from their native Africa. Not that they thought of it in that framework, as a project to eliminate the giant wooly mammoths and other game, but just that they were doing what they needed to do to keep their tribes safe and well fed. I would even be willing to argue that “taker” ethics is probably instinctive for all carnivorous animals; it is only a lack of opportunity and skill that makes other species appear to obey the rule of limited competition. And throughout biological history, species have gone extinct; how can this happen except when some other species (or combination of species) breaks the limited competition rule?
At any rate, by the end of the neolithic period (if not sooner) the “taker” paradigm had been enacted multiple times by many cultures across the globe. Nevertheless, Quinn was correct in his argument that the invention of agriculture created a whole new set of challenges, not only for the natural world, but also for human beings. The operative word is “Totalitarian”, as the new agricultural civilizations were organized in a militaristic, hierarchical fashion because of the pressures of war. This was explained in a remarkable book by Andrew Bard Schmookler, “The Parable of the Tribes” (1984). Reading this book was a transformative experience for me, and I would highly recommend it to any Ishmaelite. In the extensive quote below, Schmookler explains how the drive for power emerged, not as a result of human nature, but as a fundamental requirement for survival in this new environment.
With the rise of civilization, the limits fall away. The natural self-interest and pursuit of survival remain, but they are no longer governed by any order. The new civilized forms of society, with more complex social and political structures, created the new possibility of indefinite social expansion: more and more people organized over more and more territory. All other forms of life had always found inevitable limits placed upon their growth by scarcity and consequent death. But civilized society was developing the unprecedented capacity for unlimited growth as an entity. (The limitlessness of this possibility does not emerge fully at the outset, but rather becomes progressively more realized over the course of history as people invent methods of transportation, communication, and governance which extend the range within which coherence and order can be maintained.) Out of the living order there emerged a living entity with no defined place.
In a finite world, societies all seeking to escape death-dealing scarcity through expansion will inevitably come to confront each other. Civilized societies, therefore, though lacking inherent limitations to their growth, do encounter new external limits – in the form of one another. Because human beings (like other living creatures) have ‘excess reproductive capacity,’ meaning that human numbers tend to increase indefinitely unless a high proportion of the population dies prematurely, each civilized society faces an unpleasant choice. If an expanding society willingly stops where its growth would infringe upon neighboring societies, it allows death to catch up and overtake its population. If it goes beyond those limits, it commits aggression. With no natural order or overarching power to prevent it, some will surely choose to take what belongs to their neighbors rather than to accept the limits that are compulsory for every other form of life.
In such circumstances, a Hobbesian struggle for power among societies becomes inevitable. We see that what is freedom from the point of view of each single unit is anarchy in an ungoverned system of those units. A freedom unknown in nature is cruelly transmuted into an equally unnatural state of anarchy, with its terrors and its destructive war of all against all.
As people stepped across the threshold into civilization, they inadvertently stumbled into a chaos that had never before existed. The relations among societies were uncontrolled and virtually uncontrollable. Such an ungoverned system imposes unchosen necessities: civilized people were compelled to enter a struggle for power.
The meaning of ‘power,’ a concept central to this entire work, needs to be explored. Power may be defined as the capacity to achieve one’s will against the will of another. The exercise of power thus infringes upon the exercise of choice, for to be the object of another’s power is to have his choice substituted for one’s own. *
* As used here, power is a coercive capacity. Power may also be defined as the ability to restrict the range of another’s choices. It is thus differentiated from the kind of persuasive power that changes how others decide to exercise choice (except to the extent that, as, for example, in brainwashing, and less obviously in many other forms of indoctrination, coercive power creates the situation in which persuasion becomes possible).
Power becomes important where two actors (or more) would choose the same thing but cannot both have it; power becomes important when the obstacles to the achievement of one’s will come from the will of others. Thus, as the expanding capacities of human societies created an overlap in the range of their grasp and desire, the intersocietal struggle for power arose.
But the new unavoidability of this struggle is but the first and smaller step in the transmutation of the apparent freedom of civilized peoples into bondage to the necessities of power.
The Selection for Power: The Parable of the Tribes
The new human freedom made striving for expansion and power possible. Such freedom, when multiplied, creates anarchy. The anarchy among civilized societies meant that the play of power in the system was uncontrollable. In an anarchic situation like that, no one can choose that the struggle for power shall cease.
But there is one more element in the picture: no one is free to choose peace, but anyone can impose upon all the necessity for power. This is the lesson of the parable of the tribes.
Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? Perhaps one tribe is attacked and defeated, its people destroyed and its lands seized for the use of the victors. Another is defeated, but this one is not exterminated; rather, it is subjugated and transformed to serve the conqueror. A third seeking to avoid such disaster flees from the area into some inaccessible (and undesirable) place, and its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe. Let us suppose that others observing these developments decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. But the irony is that successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power, and if the threatening society has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology (or whatever), the defensive society will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.
I have just outlined four possible outcomes for the threatened tribes: destruction, absorption and transformation, withdrawal, and imitation. In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system. This is the parable of the tribes.
The parable of the tribes is a theory of social evolution which shows that power is like a contaminant, a disease, which once introduced will gradually yet inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies. More important than the inevitability of the struggle for power is the profound social evolutionary consequence of that struggle once it begins. A selection for power among civilized societies is inevitable. If anarchy assured that power among civilized societies could not be governed, the selection for power signified that increasingly the ways of power would govern the destiny of mankind. This is the new evolutionary principle that came into the world with civilization. Here is the social evolutionary black hole that we have sought as an explanation of the harmful warp in the course of civilization’s development.
If this analysis is correct (and I believe it is), then it represents a fundamental flaw with Quinn’s proposals to move “beyond civilization”. Quinn is wrong when he argues that the “taker” ethic is a cultural artifact, and that it can be alleviated by recovering an ancient way of being that prevailed before the advent of agricultural civilization. On the contrary, the will to take the things we need (even in violation of the limited competition rule) is built into our instincts and our genes. Totalitarian modes of hierarchical organization, militarism and power are not genetic or instinctive, but nevertheless they are built very deeply into the structure of civilization. Accordingly, transcending “taker” ethics will not come naturally to any human being. Furthermore, we are not free to walk away from the ways of power, at least not in massive numbers – if we do, we are at risk that power will come and find us, and enslave us. The best we can hope for is that some of us can elude its grasp for a little while.
In the late ‘90’s, Schmookler published a book on the declining state of his health, and I was under the highly mistaken impression that his voice had been silenced. I have just recently made the discovery of his website, his blogs and his columns at Atlantic Free Press. In one of his blog discussions, Schmookler was arguing for compassion and understanding towards some militaristic statements coming from presidential candidate Barack Obama — on the basis that a leader must show competence and comfort with military power, at least for defensive purposes, in order to be taken seriously. I would argue that even more so, we need to hold a space of compassion and respect for people’s material needs and for their efforts to meet those needs through agriculture and industry, otherwise we risk being (properly) marginalized as extremists.
At the same time, it is absolutely a fact that (as Einstein said) if we do not put an end to aggressive warfare, it will put an end to us. And we are in for miserable times if civilization continues to ignore natural limits. It’s hard to predict when the Malthusian walls will close in, but obviously we will never come close to a point where all the earth’s biomass consists of human beings. Those are the dilemmas we face, and (as Aaron wrote in his own blog recently) there is no silver bullet that is going to make these problems disappear. At the same time it’s vitally important that we keep talking about them – thus my appreciation for Aaron’s seminar.
One other aspect of modern times, which Aaron didn’t mention and which easily could be the subject of another workshop, is the tremendous pace of technological change. Scientific knowledge, computational power, communications technology, and biotechnology are all advancing at an exponentially accelerating rate, creating great dangers but also great opportunities. My hope is that solar and wind energy and fuel cell technology will bail us out of the impending situation of potential oil shortages and / or human-induced climate change, and buy us enough time to solve some of the other Malthusian problems as the rate of population increase slowly moderates. That is why my own choice is to stay engaged with industrial civilization, and hope for the best. Perhaps I need to put together my own workshop?
Peter J. Bryant’s “Biodiversity and Conservation: a hypertext book”:
Other links on extinction of megafauna:
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