Briefly Addressing Anti-Civilization Theory:
Weakness, Strengths, and the Permaculture Link between it and the Participatory Society Movement
Thursday, July 09, 2009
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
I would like to briefly address the anti-civilization issue that has been marginalized (both externally and internally imposed) within parts of the radical environmental Left. There is a good deal of vagueness in the theory, but to keep things brief and a simple as possible, the anti-civilization theory I'd like to draw on will come mostly from Derrick Jensen's articulations. He has been the most considerate and analytic proponent of this approach I've come across, and has interestingly risen to almost messianic status amongst parts of the Left with a devoted discipleship (I'm guessing much more so in terms of ideas than practice). My own position—just so you can better evaluate my argument—is that Jensen's work (and anti-civ theory more broadly) is largely on point in many ways in terms of analysis, but problematic in approach, and ultimately lacking in vision concerning dynamic and pursuable alternatives in terms of new forms of organizing societal functions.
Despite shortcomings in the approach, the ever-increasing severity of our ecological situation cannot be denied, and I believe that the anti-civ position begs some consideration before it is perhaps conclusively dismissed as posturing. Our situation begs the question of what parts of anti-civ theory can and should be salvaged, and once salvaged, what does that mean for our broader goals in terms of pursuing a participatory society? Rephrased: is the marginalization of the anti-civ question a matter of poor theory and an overall lack of feasibility (both in terms of broad unwillingness as well as overall impracticality), or is it a case of problematic rhetoric unfortunately overshadowing something of value at the core—something worth holding onto, refining, and pursuing? I fall into the latter camp, and want to discuss some of the pitfalls of the current anti-civilization approach/rhetoric, add some polish to what lies within it that I think is salvageable and powerful, and step up the development of vision for the future by amending anti-civ theory with permacultural praxis and then integrating the blend with current radical holistic approaches toward participatory society.
Derrick Jensen recently published a two volume book on the end of civilization—the first volume made the case for civilization's destructive unsustainability and the second developed a case for stopping it. He defined "civilization" as:
A culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts—that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.[i]
Through a few referenced quotes, he adds that "civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home," explaining: "its chief features, 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."[ii]
Some of the central premises of his arguments are as follows: civilization is not and can never be sustainable; those who want resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities because traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based (or the land upon which they live) until their communities have been destroyed; industrial civilization would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence; civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy, where violence can flow down the hierarchy invisibly and unnoticed, yet when it flows up the hierarchy it is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims (it follows that the property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below); dominant culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living—it must be stopped; the longer we wait to stop it, the messier will be the eventual crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after; any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and stupid; dominant culture is a culture of occupation; love does not imply pacifism.[iii] I'd like to focus on these premises as the crux of the anti-civ approach.
In terms of rhetoric, I found Jensen's work difficult to process when I first encountered it. The more time I spent with it, the more it seemed that the rhetoric subverted its own cause by the mere manner of imbuing attention-grabbing human characteristics to non-human things and processes—problematic sensationalizing. For example: to call a corporation evil (more so to wed the adjective to the noun), Jensen has to first drum up the understanding that the corporate system is more than just a cultural institution and more than just a way of doing certain things—it is, in fact, an inherently evil and malevolent organism. But then to make the theory actionable again, Jensen has to beat back the imagery he created in order to be able to say again that it's just a particular way of doing things and hence can/should be challenged and changed. His overall approach is problematic because he spends most of his time in this middle ground: injecting souls into structures and systems that don't have them. Granted it is attention-grabbing, but it also really just gets in the way of the overall point. In fact, steering away from giving these things and systems souls makes it much easier to avoid the impulse of identifying with them. I imagine that if I, for instance, identify to a certain level with my corporate job while this approach calls all corporations evil and bent on the destruction of the planet, I may already be on the defensive. Similarly, if I identify with this thing called civilization, calling my whole cultural experience a slice of destructive evil leaves me with little ground to stand on. In that sense, much of it smacks of the less-than-tactful rhetoric we heard from the old Left.
Albeit perhaps merely trivial semantics, the problematic rhetoric also comes in one of his central themes: namely, "the act of destroying the world makes money." This presupposes you already agree that the goal of all these practices and the overall dominant culture is to destroy the world, which I think, is the result of unnecessary and cynical projecting. It would make more sense to me and ultimately be more useful (in looking for a meaningful sound bite anyway) to flip it around and say that "the act of making money destroys the world." This takes an understandable system (monetary exchange, markets, capital, commodity culture, and so on) and follows it out to evidenced outcomes (potentially-irreversible environmental degradation), as opposed to taking outcomes first, without evidence, and laboring to work backward to the acts that are promoting them.
Broadly speaking, it seems more logical to just say what systems, practices, and modes of thought are being targeted, and if those ultimately equate broadly to "civilization," then so be it. But to be so shock-oriented regarding the immediate conclusions and creating a mantra out of "bringing down civilization," it comes off as a macho posturing and unnecessary to the cause. When I first began to wade through it all, the approach made the whole effort difficult to swallow—not in what was being said, but how it was being pitched. His points would nag for consideration, but mostly just flashes of his arresting conclusions and less in terms of his actual analysis.
With that said, my reason for bringing up these rhetorical issues is merely to acknowledge that there is in fact a problem with parts of the approach, but more so to say that doesn't necessarily abrogate the substance beneath it, which I think is worth considering on its own merit.
So what is there that can and should be salvaged out of this approach for the broader Left? Would a radical participatory change in all spheres of life, including our relationship with the environment (if we care to let that mythical separation play out a little longer), necessarily mean the end of what we currently think of as "civilization"? I would say, definitely, but unsurprisingly so.
Consider this. We generally have a good understanding of the supply-side of dominant culture: the overconsumption of products and energy, and where all this comes from on a global scale (see, for instance, The Story of Stuff), and where it all goes once it we get tired of it, when a new one comes out, or when it doesn't work anymore. What we have here essentially equates to a culture of occupation as Jensen observed. Our products come from the coercive depletion of resources both here and abroad, and those with the least political power end up on the front lines dealing with the waste and pollution. Were the process opened up to participatory proceedings, with workers' and consumers' councils, who is to say that any of these core resources (bauxite for aluminum, for example) would still be available? All lands would be up for redistribution and reclamation.
This notion of occupied land (if its not lending itself to serious consideration) runs parallel with the notion of occupied labor in terms of factories: factory workers with no say in what they are producing, how it is being produced, or how (little) they are being remunerated. One might be inclined to say, in terms of occupied land, it's been too long, the land is already stripped for production and parceled out, and we don't want to disrupt the production of the things we "need." The same could be said in terms of occupied labor—it's been too long, the structures are already in place, and we don't want to disrupt the production of the things we "need". In the end, everything is up for reconfiguration.
In this sense, under a participatory structure, we just might say goodbye to aluminum (and a whole host of other things). Society as we know it and the way we interact with the land will change so significantly that what we've come to embrace as civilization may become unrecognizable. All of that which might come to satisfy questions of what really is ecologically sound and what processes abide by the precautionary principle[iv] might very well turn out to be "anti-civ" on its own accord by natural processes within participatory reconfiguration. This doesn't even require the "back to the trees" rhetoric and weirdness.
Another route for conceiving of the anti-civ question is that if dominant culture is as destructively unsustainable and posed for imminent collapse as it seems (just consider how easy it really would be to see an empty grocery store...a lot of things are hanging by very thin strings), then with collapse being so foreseeable, so much of what makes for civilization is obviously unstable and easily jeopardized anyway. After all, most of our current employed technology is still premised on oil, mining, industrial agriculture/monoculture, exploitation, occupation, etc. (with each of those being premised on the same, seemingly recursively), and many alternative technologies are still largely developed at their core using these very same processes they profess to replace. Solutions to get around all of this may necessarily equate to real and practical anti-civ efforts concerning the reorganization of society and its resources—again, working by necessity and minus the problematic rhetoric and "back to the trees" weirdness.
It's difficult to envision anything beyond civilization because it's been so metabolized into people's ideas of comfort—after all, anything else would be harsh, brutish, and short, right? I say metabolized though because it's more a gut reaction than conscious rationalization. The Comfort® that dominant culture offers isn't all that comfortable. More than anything, it's a tragic dance of its destructive advances tangoing with the desperate cultural adaptations of those within it seeking to (in various ways) cope with its negative externalities.
For those that can afford to, attempts at counterbalancing the destructive advances of the culture are often made with the adoption of versions of lost indigenous practices of other cultures that this one has since run over (yoga, organic food, nature retreats, general "New Age"yness, etc.). Counterbalances are sought through religions and spiritualities that say the here and now is false or at best transitory, and the destructiveness is part of the game, so be obedient servants and focus energy on the afterlife and the ethereal. Counterbalances are sought out with drugs (see national usage stats of pharmaceuticals, narcotics, and alcohol; also see Stephen Bezruchka's "Is America Driving You Crazy?"). In fact, the counterbalances to dominant culture have always been desperate and continually growing: gang culture; punk culture; graffiti culture; anarchists and counter-culture groups; squatters; communes; alternative care hospitals; current revolutionary movements throughout Latin America and Europe; students taking over their universities; workers taking over their workplaces; women increasingly claiming the social space throughout society that is rightfully theirs; indigenous and the colonized fighting for freedom; etc. Additionally, many of the technologies we feel we couldn't live without are at the core responses to the negative externalities of dominant culture rather than real responses to intrinsic human needs (arguably—looking at medical technologies—this points to the vast array of chronic disease industries, and some research has also suggested that most of our dental care needs are the result of industrialized diets of heavily processed foods[v]). Civilization isn't comfortable; it just is.
Curiously, even though it's hard to conceive of anything else beyond civilization (and part of that problem is using such a loaded word as "civilization" itself), the difficulties here are predictable. Speaking on freedom and some of Rousseau's work, Chomsky pointed out that:
Rousseau denounced the sophistic politicians and intellectuals who searched for ways to obscure the fact...that the essential and defining property of man is his freedom: "They attribute to men a natural inclination to servitude due to the patience with which those who are before their eyes bear their servitude, without thinking that it is the same for freedom as for innocence and virtue—their value is felt only as long as one enjoys them oneself, and the taste for them is lost as soon as one has lost them..."[vi] As proof of this doctrine, he refers to the marvels done by all free peoples to guard themselves from oppression. "True," he says, "those who have abandoned the life of a free man do nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in their chains...but when I see the others sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom."[vii]
The fact that the myopia is predictable suggests that the first responses to such conceptions of life beyond "civilization" (beyond dominant culture; beyond living out of sync with what communities need for healthy landbases in terms of personal, economic, social and political wellbeing in addition to the wellbeing of the land itself) say everything about the psychosocial conditioning of the society, yet little about the actual feasibility of broad social change toward more free and ecologically-wise ways of being—which is to say that radical change and different ways of living aren't precluded, just difficult to envision from certain angles.
In terms of vision though, all of this culminates into a revised approach that says the focus shouldn't be as much on the end of anything as it should be on building anew. While the basic anti-civ premises still hold for me for the most part, in order to proceed onward toward better development of alternatives—ones that still pivot on halting the destructiveness of dominant culture while being very functionally integrated into participatory praxis—I think the permaculture movement offers this connection quite seamlessly.
The concept of permaculture was first articulated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. It began as a portmanteau of "permanent agriculture", and then later expanded through praxis to more holistically refer to "permanent culture" itself—a mode of building up more sustainable lifestyles and societies, with methods of gardening/agriculture being just one manifestation. It is basically a system of design—as simple or complex as one wants to make it—that integrates good housing with the landscape, functions on the least use of materials and the least pollution output, as well as the conservation of natural resources.[viii] It is:
Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.[ix]
Since it is an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecosystems, it is not at all anti-technology or anti-comfort. It is a certain kind of technology that mimics nature in such a way where, for instance, human-designed gardens become vastly more productive than either nature or industrial agriculture.
Permaculture is not a dogmatic approach, but has been passed along through a few simple core ethical principles: (1) care for the earth (soil, forests, water, etc.); (2, and of course not necessarily separate) care for people (self, kin, community, etc.); and (3) fair share (limits on consumption and reproduction, redistribute surpluses, conserve, total cost accounting, give away while accumulating, etc.).[x] Targeting system design more specifically, Holmgren mapped out 12 guiding design principles:
1. Observe and interact - By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
2. Catch and store energy - By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.
3. Obtain a yield - Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
5. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback - We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
6. Use and value renewable resources and services - Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.
7. Produce no waste - By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
9. Design from patterns to details - By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
10. Integrate rather than segregate - By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
11. Use small and slow solutions - Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
13. Use and value diversity - Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
14. Use edges and value the marginal - The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
15. Creatively use and respond to change - We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.[xi]
Permaculture principles are brief statements or slogans that can be remembered as a checklist when considering the inevitably complex options for design and evolution of ecological support systems. These principles are seen as universal, although the methods that express them will vary greatly according to place and situation. These principles are also applicable to our personal, economic, social and political reorganization.[xii]
When Mollison began designing permaculture systems, he believed he could construct environments that were as stable as the rainforest through the integration of house, plants, and animals into living system. Every zone within the area he worked with had a collection of species that regulated each other, thereby creating a virtually maintenance-free system. Every element included performed multiple functions.
Since it was first articulated in the 70s, most of its manifestations have grown out of agricultural interest. Fortunately it is an inherently praxis-oriented process, so it has had some time to build successes, refine approaches, expand focuses, and teach. As its implementation continues to grow—expanding beyond agricultural/gardening approaches and becoming more holistic in approach—radical theory in terms of participatory economics and society, and in terms of libertarian socialism more broadly, would offer it valuable inroads for future refinement. So in that sense, both permaculture and participatory society theory contribute crucial parts to an overall robust theory envisioning a more just and sane future.
Considering what permaculture could offer the overall approach toward participatory societies might allow for some crucial refining of goals. For instance, should we be shooting for factory takeovers within inherently unsustainable industries or industries occupying territories and resources a few degrees away? Ecologically speaking, some (well, many) industries should and will fail and we should be able to accept that and offer visions of what might lie beyond an industrial society. Framing our labor victories as the successful takeover and running of factories may be the wrong goal and the wrong measure. How do we frame our victories if the takeover eventually fails after all? Was the participatory structure not sufficient to the task (thereby suggesting holes in the practicality of the theory), or was it because the operation as a whole simply wasn't sustainable or incapable of being run without exploitation at some level?
Certainly there is the position that real livelihoods are at stake and any reform that makes the lives of those worse off better is a step in the right direction. To this I completely agree, but I think in terms of vision, we may be able to do better and envision something more—going beyond merely stopping at an industrial society. Factories, worker-run or otherwise, still tie all those involved to industrial practices that are by and large unsustainable. If the goal is to convert all of that to a participatory structure, what happens then if/when industrial technologies never materialize that will replace oil, mining, occupation and exploitation here and abroad? Or what if the cost is just too great to reasonably produce them to the extent that they could be most efficiently used? This is just to say that if participation is pursued in earnest, society will look vastly different. And that's ok. Technology may look vastly different as well, and it's possible that we may be able to uncover a deeper grasp of comfort. We've misplaced enough useful energy for long enough.
[i] Derrick Jensen. Engame, vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization. Seven Stories Press. 2006. p17.
[ii] Ibid. p18.
[iii]http://www.endgamethebook.org/Excerpts/1-Premises.htm . Accessed 7/5/09.
[iv] That says if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.
[vi] Quote taken from original source. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "Against Arbitrary Authority." Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality.
[vii] Noam Chomsky. Taken from his talk: Government in the Future. Given in 1970 at the Poetry Center.
[viii] Bill Mollison. In Grave Danger of Falling Food (film). http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3162503821561656641. Accessed 7/5/09.
[ix]http://www.holmgren.com.au/html/Writings/essence.html#Design. Accessed 7/5/09.
[xii]http://www.holmgren.com.au/html/Writings/essence.html#Design. Accessed 7/5/09.