Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.
“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”
“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” he said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”
Modern capitalist societies, Wright argues in his book “What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order,” derive from European invaders’ plundering of the indigenous cultures in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives. The numbers of those natives fell by more than 90 percent because of smallpox and other plagues they hadn’t had before. The Spaniards did not conquer any of the major societies until smallpox had crippled them; in fact the Aztecs beat them the first time around. If Europe had not been able to seize the gold of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, if it had not been able to occupy the land and adopt highly productive New World crops for use on European farms, the growth of industrial society in Europe would have been much slower. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.
“The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever,” Wright said. “It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”Chris Hedges: The Myth of Human Progess (TruthDig)
Wright's ideas obviously echo the major themes of this blog, and A Short History of Progress is an excellent summary. It's a good refutation in essay form of the techno-utopianist ideas of the "bright green" environmentalists."
They believe that progress is confined to things that benefit existing power and centralized control - nuclear power, geoengineering, biofuels, genetically modified crops, electric cars, lab-grown meat, ocean farming, mining asteroids, etc. and that further intensification will make things better for everyone. Things that might benefit ordinary people, like more jobs for less people, conservation, healing the earth through permaculture, reducing working hours, public banking, sharable economies, walkable communities, local currencies and the like, are not considered worth discussion.
It strikes me that people who spout ideas like Kevin Kelley and Mark Lynas are the ones who end up giving Long Now Talks, writing cover stories for Wired, and being invited to speak on podcasts like EconTalk. If you hold opinions like, 'a brownfield or a mined mountain is just as much a natural habitat as a pristine wilderness and will heal itself,' 'robots will create ever more jobs under existing conditions,' 'the earth is dangerously underpopulated,' and 'we have to feed 10 billion by whatever means necessary,' people will throw money at you, invite you to give speeches, and give you book deals.
By contrast people who hold opinions like Wright or Hedges (or Chris Martenson or Nicole Foss or Paul Kingsnorth, or...) do not get anywhere near as much exposure. Regardless of the merits of their ideas, they are shoved under the rug and have to fight to get their message heard. People need to find them, not the other way around. In the market of ideas, some are at eye level and by the checkout lanes, others you have to ask the clerk to fetch from the storeroom.
By coincidence, I just happened to be reading this excerpt from Jeremy Grantham's famous letter to investors in 2011 published on The Oil Drum. Here is a portion where he echoes Wright:
As a product of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years of trial and error, it is perhaps not surprising that our species is excellent at many things. Bred to survive on the open savannah, we can run quite fast, throw quite accurately, and climb well enough. Above all, we have excellent spatial awareness and hand/eye coordination. We are often flexible and occasionally inventive.
For dealing with the modern world, we are not, however, particularly well-equipped. We don’t seem to deal well with long horizon issues and deferring gratification. Because we could not store food for over 99% of our species’ career and were totally concerned with staying alive this year and this week, this is not surprising. We are also innumerate. Our typical math skills seem quite undeveloped relative to our nuanced language skills. Again, communication was life and death, math was not. Have you not admired, as I have, the incredible average skill and, perhaps more importantly, the high minimum skill shown by our species in driving through heavy traffic? At what other activity does almost everyone perform so well? Just imagine what driving would be like if those driving skills, which reflect the requirements of our distant past, were replaced by our average math skills!
We also became an optimistic and overconfident species, which early on were characteristics that may have helped us to survive and today are reaffirmed consistently by the new breed of research behaviorists. And some branches of our culture today are more optimistic and overconfident than others. At the top of my list would be the U.S. and Australia. In a well-known recent international test,1 U.S. students came a rather sad 28/40 in math and a very mediocre eighteenth in language skills, but when asked at the end of the test how well they had done in math, they were right at the top of the confidence list. Conversely, the Hong Kongers, in the #1 spot for actual math skills, were averagely humble in their expectations.