For those of you who’ve just found your way here, this is the fifth post in a multi-part entry entitled Beyond the Longest Childhood. Click on the following links to read the Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3. Then you will be ready to proceed with Chapter 4.
The Second False Dispersal
From 1492 AD to 1893 AD, the Frontier expanded at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. The desperation act of industrialization in the late 18th Century AD (the turn to mining fossil forests to meet ever-growing energy demands) gave it a boost when it threatened to stall again for lack of sufficient soil and wood-fuel sources to keep it moving. This turn to the deforestation of the Carboniferous, and later, of the Jurassic Earth set up a new means for accomplishing myriad tasks previously undertaken by people and animals, many of them slaves.
Machines were invented to take advantage of the energy-slave-equivalents contained in fossil fuels. The unequaled energy density of this fuel source made it possible to perform work on a scale and at a rate beyond anything ever seen before. This potential sparked a wave of industrial innovation. Legions of inventors unleashed their imaginations on the task of shackling hydrocarbon energy slaves to ever more aspects of human life. The aim of freeing real humans from drudgery and slavery (and even freeing animal slaves, for instance, by replacing plow horses with tractors) was commendable, but masked the profound wrong turn this response represented — a deepening and accelerating dependence on drawdown, now the drawdown of the past. The net result was the rapid foreshortening of the future.
Of course, the early industrialists didn’t see it this way. The so-called fossil fuels seemed like a free boon. And their exploitation transformed the civilized world. It started in earnest in the early/mid 1800’s AD in the United States. There commenced an exponential eruption of the aforementioned technological innovations. The possibilities seemed boundless, especially when applied to food production. Eventually, a method for translating fossil fuels into biomass — artificial nitrogen fertilization — was devised. It ushered in an unprecedented population spike headed toward 7 billion and beyond, but in the 1800’s, the flood gate had only just opened.
The human tidal wave it unleashed swept west across North America. The wave was fed by industry and driven by the ideology of manifest destiny, which was simply the myth of the inexhaustible Frontier revitalized for the industrial age.
And from the U.S., the industrial fever spread to other countries, mostly the old world powers of Europe who used it to gain imperial control over much of the rest of the Earth. Nothing seemed capable of slowing it down. And for a little over a century, numerous nations raced to exploit the industrial capacities of their homelands as well as their colonies. They mined whatever holdings they could access in an orgy of pillage.
This heedless plunder set up a repeat of the same pattern that occurred with agriculture, when the early agriculturalists exhausted their home soil and then faced the imperative to either curtail growth and mature or expand into neighboring lands. The difference was, with industry, expansion proceeded much more rapidly. As a consequence, the span of time in which industrializing nations could engage in the practice without facing the need for either maturation or expansion was much shorter.
The worldwide industrial wake-up call came in 1893 AD when an astute historian named Frederick Jackson Turner made a declaration with implications that have yet to be fully appreciated. He declared the North American Frontier (and, by extension, the Frontier that had been spreading outward from southwest Asia for some 6,000 years) closed. Actually, at the global scale, the Frontier didn’t close in 1893 AD, but rather, it began closing for the first time since opening some six millennia earlier. A simple way to understand this event is through the old riddle (slightly modified), “How far can you run into the wilderness?” Answer: half-way, then you’re running out. The year 1893 AD represented the end of civilization’s long run into the wilderness. After that, it began running out. At an accelerating rate.
And so, at that moment, not just North America, but the world, was changed.
From the birth of the Frontier around 4,000 BC until 1893 AD, whenever the children of civilization looked outward from their islands of occupied land, they perceived themselves to be surrounded by a seemingly endless ocean of wilderness. This perception gave them comfort and purpose, because their cosmology depended on open-endedness in order to be meaningful. In 1893 AD, however, the situation suddenly inverted, at the global scale. Civilization became the oceanic condition and the areas of wilderness became the fast shrinking islands. The world turned out not to be open-ended after all.
Without any change in the civilized cosmology and its corresponding expression, it shifted from a state of expansion to a state of contraction due to the simple fact that it was expanding across the surface of a sphere and, at the half-way point, ceased moving outward and began closing in on itself.
The implications of this were, and still are, staggering. At the moment of contextual inversion, when expansion became contraction and wilderness went from oceanic to insular relative to the rising tide of civilization, the civilized social order faced the imperative to undergo a corresponding cultural inversion, a near-total systemic inversion, from a globalizing force to a localizing force, from being growth-driven to being stability-driven, from a state of arrested cultural development to a state of cultural maturity.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, as in the years prior to 1492 AD, the pressure to expand again started building, only this time at an unprecedented rate due to the intercontinental scale of industrial society and the accelerating pace the mechanization of work made possible through the mining and exploitation of millions of years worth of sequestered energy in the form of the aforementioned fossil fuels. Even as the inevitable end became clear, industrial practices amped up the culturally adolescent growth process by orders of magnitude.
The build-up of pressure proved so immense that the seams burst just 21 short years (one discontented generation) after Jackson’s declaration. Pent up human steam blasted across Europe, where the impulse to engage in industrial expansion chafed against the limits imposed by a new, and planet-wide, contractile reality. Unlike the U.S. with the vast wealth of the western half of North America yet to be exploited, the Europeans had only each other. The result was a bloodbath.
World War I.
The name of the conflict itself suggests that its outbreak at this particular time was no coincidence. Worldwide war was the inevitable result of the globalization of civilization and the corresponding contraction of the Frontier when the associated human social order failed to respond appropriately by undertaking a concurrent process of contraction. It happened because the momentum of civilization will, if left unchecked, compel an attempt to continue growing as if open-endedness is still an option. And following 1893 AD, the momentum not only proceeded unchecked, but underwent industrial strength intensification.
The consequent rupture occurred in the tinderbox of central Europe, where the spark of an Austrian Archduke’s assassination ignited the conflagration; the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria used the murder as an excuse to attempt the initiation of a second false dispersal. In place of the Frontier, they opened a military front along their borders with neighboring nations. However, the lands into which they tried to push the front were defended by fellow civilized powers, the Allied Powers (France, Britain and Russia), who successfully mobilized equivalent counterforce to stall the expansion of the front. Where the push ended, the two sides dug in.
For the front to move again, a grievous mistake by either side or a disparity in power capable of offsetting the defender’s advantage was required. Neither side was capable of producing the disparity until, after three years of carnage, a new force, the United States, entered the conflict and tipped the balance. The Central Powers were defeated and the front dissolved. But the pressure didn’t ease. It just kept building.
The demand for reparations imposed by the victors aroused bitter resentment in the defeated, particularly the Germans. This further amplified the building pressure within the overburdened German populace. They were desperate for any promise of relief, any means to grow. The National Socialist party provided it. Their program of creating many false separations within the German populace, of singling out certain members for exclusion based on racial stereotypes rationalized by the pseudoscience of social Darwinism essentially created an internal front. The self-appointed elite could then expand without having to push out the literal German borders. This cultural cannibalism generated a concentration of wealth sufficient to fund the rebuilding of the military infrastructure in preparation for another try at initiating a second false dispersal.
The failure of the first attempt had shown the Germans that success would depend on offsetting the balance of power to an even greater degree than before. They needed something that would produce a power disparity between themselves and their enemies equivalent to the power disparity between agriculturalists and non-agriculturalists. In other words, if the Neolithic revolution rendered Paleolithic peoples defenseless against attack, what might do the same for Neolithic peoples? The answer lay in taking full advantage of the military potential that comes with the second revolution against life and the Earth. The Industrial Revolution.
The Germans embarked on an unprecedented military mechanization program that opened a massive power gap between themselves and their civilized neighbors. These neighbors, still reeling from the horrors of the so-called War to End All Wars and suffering from a global economic depression, helped open the gap further by following a policy of appeasement. This made the Germans all the more bold.
The pot boiled over again a mere 21 years (one more discontented generation) after the end of the first rupture. Mechanization and the unprecedented power and speed it provided the German military in the execution of their “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) strategy almost prevailed. But their overextension — invading Russia before defeating England — stretched them too thin. This robbed them of their lightning and extended the duration of the war for a span sufficient to allow their industrial enemies to mechanize and offset their initial advantage. The German push slowed. When Germany’s ally, Japan drew the United States into the conflict on the Allied side, Axis defeat was only a matter of time. The tide soon turned against the Germans and the Japanese, who also needed a quick victory to keep the initial odds from evening and then becoming too much.
In Germany and the lands they had conquered, the desperate bid to engineer super weapons so as to again create an insurmountable power disparity (with jet planes, massive tanks and long-range rockets) proved insufficient to reverse the tide. All it did was slow the Axis collapse, and drag the nightmare of industrial death out six long years. It also brought about the perfection of destruction.
When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the option of using military might to successfully advance a second false dispersal across the globe ended. But the pressure behind the urge did not.
No sooner had Germany and Japan surrendered than a new conflict arose between the two principal industrial powers to emerge victorious, the United States and the Soviet Union. Their struggle however took a new form because direct warfare could only result in mutually assured destruction. This conflict came to be called the Cold War.
The Cold War was fought economically instead of militarily, though military build-up and posturing were key elements. Brinksmanship drove the illusion of advancement. It was the only way to keep the wartime economies of both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. from slowing after victory over the Axis powers. In energetic terms, World War II never ended, but morphed into a new form and amplified. This included devising the aforementioned method for converting fossil fuels into fertilizers via the repurposing of compounds produced in quantity for chemical warfare and in need of a new market outlet14. Agriculture was it. These compounds not only boosted crop yields, but became pesticides and other toxins unleashed on the earth and the unsuspecting populace who, from then on, ingested them with every conventionally grown and processed bite they took.
In addition to chemical redirection, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. also continued to develop and amass weapons at the same time they expanded factory production beyond military hardware to include civilian products like mechanized farm equipment aimed at conquering other nations not via direct assault, but via debt interest on so-called development loans. In short, the wartime victors turned to economic imperialism (at home and abroad), which essentially translated into an even greater amplification of mining sequestered energy and materiel from the Earth. Drawdown accelerated: the economic engine already on overdrive as a result of the Second World War revved up further, and was ever more committed to adolescent growth, now proceeding at a relative break-neck speed thanks to industrial strength augmentation of age-old agricultural techniques.
The economic attempt to undertake the second false dispersal involved overplaying the distinction between the two principal economic ideologies — U.S. capitalism and Soviet communism — and then pitting them against each other for global supremacy. Both ideologies were however variations on a much deeper imperative built into the singular tradition from which the two powers each arose. They were expressions of living by drawdown, which now has a more specific name, consumerism.
The struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was over how the consumption of the Earth would proceed. Consumption — drawdown — was a given. In other words, the two powers were pushing conflicting economic models for planetary plunder. But plunder was central to both systems. Each was struggling to be the sole regulator and beneficiary of the spoils.
The struggle proceeded until 1991 AD when the Soviet Union exhausted its growth potential and suffered economic collapse. At that point, capitalism held sway over most of the world. However, the terrifying distraction of the Cold War had obscured the fact that the civilized economic machine had, by that point, already been singular since 1947 AD when China (violently) abandoned the Eastern mode of civilization in favor of Westernization on the communist model. This was significant because it represented the final coalescence of all the world’s civilized lineages into a single planetary monoculture.
The original civilizations of Egypt, India, the Pacific Islands and the Americas had long vanished or been absorbed into the West. China was the last to merge (and I say “the last to merge” rather than “the last to be assimilated” because the cultural exchange was two-way, though the most significant aspect, the economic model, was decidedly Western). Once East and West merged, the second false dispersal was, for all intents and purposes, the project of a single global civilization.
The expansion phase of the second false dispersal — industrialization — followed the model of the first false dispersal of agriculture into optimally inhabited non-agricultural lands, and the genuine dispersal of humanity out of Africa, only the second false dispersal proceeded far more rapidly (it accelerated by orders of magnitude).
The second false dispersal reached the halfway point of growth potential and crossed threshold into contraction in 2008 AD, an event signaled by a global economic slowdown. This crossing of the second false dispersal into a state of contraction occurred just over 60 years after its initiation at the close of World War II, as opposed to 6,000 years for the first false dispersal of agriculture and 60,000 years for the genuine dispersal. The most recent threshold goes by the name of peak everything.
And with the arrival of peak everything, another opportunity for cultural maturation, maturation initially postponed by agriculture, and then by industrialization, is again at hand.
The difference is, now the option of further postponement is no longer realistically available. The acceleration of the global civilized trajectory has seen to that. For the growth rate to increase by another order of magnitude, as it must for the trajectory to hold, would mean reaching the next point of exhaustion in a mere six years. Then the imperative to mature or initiate another postponement (which would now be measured in months or weeks) would again be at hand. And then again, a few days later. Then a few hours. Then a few minutes. Make no mistake, the effort is under way. It goes by the name of the Digital Revolution, in which programmers are attempting to create a substitute for reality itself.
But the now-unfolding virtual Age promises to be the briefest of all, because the means for the postponement of maturation it offers are vanishing in direct proportion to its own success. An unavoidable reckoning is at hand. No easily accessible alternative fuel sources exist with energy densities or requisite energy returns on investment even remotely equivalent to fossil fuels. Thus, the only positive way forward will be do what the turn to agricultural soil mining postponed 10,000 years ago, what the opening of the Frontier postponed 6,000 years ago, what the “discovery” of the Americas postponed in 1492 AD and what the turn to fossil-fueled industry postponed in the late 18th Century AD: undergo cultural maturation.
We who face this maturation must draw from the soil of ourselves the humility to accept that our now-global industrial consumer civilization is the last adolescent human culture on Earth. The final chance to grow up is upon us. One way or another, the longest childhood is about to end.
The question is where might we who remain culturally immature find inspiration and guidance in undertaking the vital process of cultural maturation? The most obvious answer is to seek the guiding stories of those who have already matured and/or those who did not turn to agriculture and industry in response to the end of the dispersal option, but instead chose a different way forward.
(Coming next: Beyond the Longest Childhood, Chapter 5 — Trickster’s Mandate)