Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chapter 4 of Beyond the Longest Childhood: Cultural Maturation and the Challenge of Ecological Integrity

      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. 

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. 

      Nuclear weapons.

      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. 

      Virtual reality.      

      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)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Chapter 3 of Beyond the Longest Childhood: Cultural Maturation and the Challenge of Ecological Integrity

      For those of you who’ve just found your way here, this is the fourth post in a multi-part entry entitled Beyond the Longest Childhood.  Click on the following links to read the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2.  Then you will be ready to proceed with Chapter 3. 

Chapter 3
The First False Dispersal

      Agriculture, and in particular, graniculture, with its ability to feed far higher populations (and thus bigger armies) than hunting and foraging, and driven by the masculine mentality born of the domestication process itself — of forcing other lives to bend to the human will — made possible the aggressive expansion into neighboring landbases not yet robbed of their energetic (soil) wealth by the non-agriculturalists who sustainably inhabited them. 

      Thus opened a new and dark chapter in the human story.  Conquest. 

      A significant reason the conquest option never existed before was the relative balance of power maintained between various mature cultures when they all lived with ecological integrity and were all roughly equal in size and strength.  In such a situation, the defender always had the advantage.  And an alliance between defenders could easily put down the territorial aspirations of even the most ambitious would-be conqueror.  But more importantly, maturation resulted in a culture living within the means of the home landbase to provide for their needs, indefinitely.  By living well within ecological limits and thus without scarcity, there was no incentive for conquest.  Petty raids and feuds, yes, but not the theft of the means to life itself.  That was something of an entirely different order.   The agricultural/civilized order.  

      The one-hundred-fold or more agricultural versus non-agricultural population disparity made possible by this order completely nullified the previously-existing balance of power.  Simply put, agriculturalists could field armies on a scale sufficient to offset both the defender’s advantage and an alliance of non-agricultural neighbors.

      And not only did they feed their own armies, but they supported a parasitic horde of horse raiders10, who, after domesticating and learning to ride their equine slaves, subsisted on the Steppe by marauding their sedentary, plant-growing, grain-storing neighbors.  The arms race between better raider weapons versus better graniculturalist walls then commenced.  It continues to this day in the form of ICBMs and subterranean bunkers.

      Since the earliest stages of this new self-amplifying martial dynamic, the original inhabitants of invaded lands could and did resist the incursions of graniculturalists and raiders, but to do so effectively required them to adopt the ways of one, the other, or both of these aggressors.  It was the only means available to raise their numbers (via planting high yield crops) or their might (via becoming cavalry), and so achieve a new balance of power.  In other words, for non-agriculturalists/raiders to undergo the transformation necessary to repel an unprecedented host of potential invaders required them to live like the invaders (a process well-described by Andrew Bard Schmookler in his book, The Parable of the Tribes11).  Thus, they were defeated either way, by their enemies or by themselves.  In both instances, their relationship with the land turned from that of a net contributor to its resilience to a miner of its resilience, engaged in energetic and material drawdown.   

      And the only way to keep this state of drawdown alive was, and still is, through expansion, the edge of which has a name: the Frontier. 

      Unlike the Periphery — the original expanding margin of genuine dispersal, where peopled and un-peopled lands abutted — the Frontier is the margin where agricultural/raider expansion has pushed into territories already peopled with healthy mature cultures living with ecological integrity. 

      To rationalize this expansion, the deepest story of the civilized cultures quickly came to paint the other side of the Frontier  — called the wilderness — as dark, dangerous and infested with half-human savages; a convenient myth when ecocide and genocide are forthcoming.  The wilderness was perceived as an endless hostile ocean surrounding the perceived island of safety and order: civilization.  The self-appointed role of the civilized was, and still is, to push into this ocean and subdue it, exploit it, tame it.  In other words, civilize it.  Always the means are violent; the notion of a peace-loving civilization is an oxymoron as is the erroneous equation of civility with common human decency.  Even if the center of a civilization is a shiny, pleasant, civil place, its edges are always bloody.  Like the blade of a sword attached to the most comfortable of grips.

      For civilization itself to remain viable, its relationship to the wilderness must remain that of island to ocean.  The people of civilization since its beginning have in effect been relying on the same sense of open-endedness by which dispersal operated, except that the open-endedness they perceive is a pretense.  They have been acting as if the regions of earth beyond their isles of domesticity are empty habitat, when in fact they have been fully, optimally peopled by humans who have achieved a stage of human development — cultural maturity — that civilized folk, by definition, cannot achieve; the civilized order is the extreme manifestation of a postponement of the mature state.  In the face of this fact, the civilized citizenry have, to date, responded with denial and forged on. 

      The Western tradition in particular marched from conquest to conquest, leaving behind each exhausted center as it expanded into the as-yet forested and deep-soiled margins, where new centers were established.  This happened repeatedly — Sumer, Greece, Rome, Western Europe, the eastern seaboard of North America.  It can be tracked by following the forests turned to stumps then shrubs and finally deserts12

      Invariably, the longer a land base suffered the malignancy of civilization, the more desertified it became.  The once-fertile crescent — the first region to be domesticated — began as a land of great forests.  In them grew the famed cedars of Lebanon.  Now the whole region is desert. 

      Next in line, the Greek mainland and Italian Peninsula also enjoyed dense forest cover.  Now, little more than olive trees can grow in their depleted soils.  Western Europe still harbors remnant forests, but they are stressed and impoverished in comparison to the woodlands of old.  And the once-treed British Isles are now famed for their rolling hills of heather.  These hills are essentially vast clear cuts that didn’t have the resilience to recover after the final axe fell and enslaved sheep were brought in to keep them in a denuded state indefinitely.

      Eastern North America came next and suffered much like Western Europe.  In western North America, where the march of civilization has arrived most recently, pockets of old growth yet remain, but the process of drawdown is still playing out. 

      Similar stories unfold wherever civilization has emerged and spread, in Asia, North Africa, on several Pacific Islands and in the Americas.  Among some of these cultures, extreme diligence may have reduced agricultural erosion to a trickle in the most ideal locales, such as coastal India.  But even there, agrarian practices go against what the land wants to be and so have greatly diminished the quality and diversity of that land as it existed in its wild, pre-agricultural state. 

      Of all the places touted as exemplifying sustainable agriculture, none is more heralded than China.  For this reason, it deserves a closer look.  The ability of Chinese civilization to endure longer than most without the need for expansion can only be partially attributed to careful technique.  Mostly, it is due to the gift of deep fertile loess soil, created over eons by the rising of the Himalayan Massif and washed down into the lowlands on wind and water, thereby replenishing what agricultural exploitation and erosion have carried away.  In other words, here, like ancient Egypt, geologic soil build-up has offset malignant drawdown. 

      This is why the Chinese have not had to engage themselves in a constant state of expansion like the western civilizations and instead built the greatest wall of all to keep jealous expansion-dependent invaders out.  This unusual situation, however, did not render the Chinese a more peaceful people or exempt them from the cultural corruption inherent in becoming dependent on drawdown.  They engaged in conflicts as brutal, bloody and incessant as the western civilizations, but instead of directing their aggressions outward toward the conquest of neighbors, the Chinese conflicts were largely internecine struggles to monopolize the control of China’s wealth through the efforts of a few powerful warlords to obtain political and economic unification.  Once achieved in 221 B.C., holding Imperial power against those who would try to take it then drove the martial tradition on into the modern era.  The Revolution did not bring the conflicts or the reliance on drawdown to an end.  Rather, it westernized them and carried them forward with industrial efficiency.   

      Yet, China’s situation is not without limits.  Had they not encountered the West, their self-amplifying population/food dynamic would eventually have outpaced the land’s capacity to maintain their growth.  Thus, it would only have been a matter of time before they reached the edge of exhaustion.  They simply didn’t reach it before they merged with the West, at which point their march to the edge became a sprint.  But that comes later in the story.

      At this point, West and East are millennia away from their confluence.  In the West, the advancement of the false dispersal was still swallowing up the peoples who had spread across the Earth during the genuine dispersal and was either destroying, assimilating or corrupting them into facsimiles as it went.  In time, most people involved in advancing this false dispersal were not even the descendants of its originators, but were descendants of conquered peoples doing the conqueror's bidding. 

      Slowly, inexorably, the way of drawdown became a tradition to those who passed it on generation to generation, conquest to conquest.  Thanks to Shifting Baseline Syndrome, as described by J. B. MacKinnon13, false dispersal came to seem “normal,” to feel “natural,” to those born, raised or successfully drawn within its sphere of influence, a sphere that just kept growing, without any apparent end in sight.

      The invisibility of the end derives from the massive scale of the Earth relative to even the largest pre-modern civilizations.  From their perspective, the land just went on and on, and each outward expansion of the Frontier revealed yet another uncivilized horizon just beyond reach, awaiting the next push to bring it into the fold.  Each successful push served to affirm the validity of the civilized worldview.  That the central assumption of this worldview might prove false never entered their wildest dreams.  And so they pressed on with the certainty of gods.

      In the West, empires rose and fell, and the slow spread across Europe, essentially westward, continued right up to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where it stalled against the unassailable sea.  The Dark Ages with their plagues, crusades and feudal struggles was the result.  The factor that made this period “dark” was the inability to advance the Frontier, which concentrated the populace in growing cities lacking necessary waste disposal systems.  This in turn led to repeated devastating outbreaks of epidemic diseases like bubonic plague, small pox and influenza. 

      Finally, in 1492 AD, a desperate European kingdom hired an ambitious sailor to attempt what must have seemed the most ludicrous of folly.  Three ships about the size of modern pleasure yachts sailed west from Europe on faith that they would arrive in the East by doing so. 

      However, due to the presence of a couple of unexpected (or more likely, rumored) continents, they did not succeed in reaching the East.  The monarch was not at all upset about this however, because the sailors did succeed in encountering something far more significant. 

      The intervening “new” worlds of the Americas provided a windfall of exactly what European civilization most desired: fresh wealth and space.  The bounty of the Americas fed the withering West, long held in check by extreme climate in the north, desert and tropical disease in the south, the vastness of a well-defended Asia in the east and the heretofore immovable frontier of the Atlantic Ocean in the west. 

      The Americas provided an open route — a path of surmountable resistance — and the wealth necessary for a simmering medieval creativity, which had been kindled by the interchange of ideas that took place during the Crusades, to erupt into the Renaissance.  At the same time, plague ridden, over-packed cities exported their excess populations across the Atlantic.  When the refugees reached the Americas, the wealth of the “new” territories was loaded into the emptied ships for the return trip. 

      The Frontier of the first false dispersal that had been stuck on the eastern edge of the Atlantic began to expand once more.  And a long-hungry continent proceeded to fatten on the flesh of lands not yet stripped to bone. 

(Coming next:  Beyond the Longest Childhood, Chapter 4 — The Second False Dispersal)

Monday, January 8, 2018

Chapter 2 of Beyond the Longest Childhood: Cultural Maturation and the Challenge of Ecological Integrity

      For those of you who’ve just found your way here, this is the third post in a multi-part entry entitled Beyond the Longest Childhood.  Click on the following links to read the Introduction and Chapter 1.  Then you will be ready to proceed with Chapter 2. 

Chapter 2
Pathological Adolescence

    Before continuing, it is important to note, unlike humanity’s transition from childhood to adolescence, which was a singular species-wide event that took place in Africa some 80,000 to 70,000 years ago, human maturation happened culture by culture, place by place all across the Earth over a span of some 60,000 years, the span required for our ancestors to fill the planetary habitat vacuum. 

      Throughout those sixty millennia, the option of dispersal allowed for population pressure release along the human Periphery and so adolescent cultures had a place in the community of life.  These cultures didn’t necessarily exist on the Periphery, but their growth rippled outward like dominos, pushing peripheral cultures to keep moving even if they themselves were not growing.  The peopling of the most extreme habitats on Earth — the Arctic, high mountains, deserts and remote islands — likely happened this way.  The growing populations in the more plentiful equatorial and temperate lands forced the sparse populations in the harsher hinterlands even farther out.

      Well before all the habitable earth was filled, this push became increasingly difficult, for the simple reason that expansion into unpeopled lands can only proceed until half of those lands are filled.  Then, to spread further is to enter a state of contraction: the amount of land available to absorb growth is, after the half-way point, shrinking.  It is telling that not even this contraction applied sufficient pressure to inspire people to yoke themselves to agriculture/domestication.  But eventually, after some 60,000 years, the possibility of dispersal ended virtually everywhere, signaling the closing of the Periphery and the end of an age. 

      Except for a few remote Pacific islands, the final closure of the Periphery occurred at the dawn of the Holocene, roughly 10,000 years ago.  At this point all but six of the thousands of cultures then spread at optimal densities across the habitable globe had entered the mature phase, a phase capable of lasting for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more years. 

      Those remaining six cultures however, chose a mode of living by which they succeeded in postponing the cessation of adolescent, dispersal era growth as well as the concurrent conceptual/behavioral/technological transformation indicative of cultural maturation.  Those six cultures were, of course, the six original agricultures from which all of civilized existence spawned. 

      Agriculture is, most simply, the use of the conceptual/technological potential gained via passage through the bottleneck to spread a means of living that equates to obligate soil mining6 directed at increasing the food supply to sustain a rising population in an area with no empty habitat left to fill.  In contrast to dispersal era growth, this kind of growth beyond the optimum is anomalous.  It is human nature made unnatural by its expression in the wrong stage of the human life cycle.

      In the original six agrarian populations to engage in this anomalous growth (and every iteration to follow, including modern, global, industrial consumer civilization), the whole energetic flow of life — the trophic cascade from sun to soil — was quite suddenly reversed.  This energetic reversal and the consequent reliance on the drawdown of planetary resilience it engendered was, and still is, a pathological violation of life’s most sacred trust; a pathological adolescence that is an inescapable aspect of agriculture itself. 

      After all, the original crops on which the vast majority of today’s burgeoning billions still largely depend are grasses (wheat, rice and corn) and other early successional colonizers whose ecological job is to come in after catastrophic disturbances like conflagrations or thousand-year floods and hold the exposed soil together long enough (usually just a few years) for the slower-growing shrubs and forest-forming trees to take over.

      From the perspective of the land, agriculture (including animal enslavement — i.e. domestication/husbandry — with its creation of perpetual pasture) represents a deliberate, unending Apocalyptic catastrophe on the same order as the asteroid collision that extinguished the dinosaurs.

      In other words, every time a plow, spade, shovel or hoe rips into the ground, biomass and diversity are lost and erosion commences, thereby setting the ecological clock back toward zero.  It is a clock that has thus far been running for nearly five billion of the estimated 12 billion years the Earth will exist. 

      When Homo sapiens came into being, Earth was living well into its mature phase.  The existence of complex multi-cellular life is itself indicative of planetary maturity7.   Earth-like planets at a more youthful stage — if they exist — harbor only single-celled organisms because the requisite time has not yet elapsed for multi-cellular cooperatives to have emerged from the unfolding of the evolutionary process. 

      The emergence of complex life began on Earth several hundred million years ago, thus signaling planetary passage into the mature stage.   Entry into planetary maturity brought into being a vast menagerie of living forms including not only the familiar animals of the present — birds and mammals — but the dinosaurs and their even-more ancient oceanic predecessors. 

      And this mature stage is by no means nearing its end.  On the contrary, planetary maturity could last several hundred million more years.  For Homo sapiens, a species who is only about 200,000 years into a potential life span of 2-4 million years, the mature stage of planetary development is the stage in which we will (if all goes well) pass our entire existence before either going extinct or evolving into something definitively different. 

      Our job as a species is to do our part to make sure all goes well for life as a whole in our time so that those who come next will have the same chance in theirs.   Clearly, given our place in the planetary time-line, our job does not include worrying about and planning for planetary death, which won’t take place for billions of years.  

      The job of facing planetary death is for species as yet unborn, species who will come into being only if we don’t preclude the possibility of their eventual existence by our actions now.   And the best way to insure their future (and thus our own living legacy) is to care for Earth in the present.   For this, we will need to accept that our species will be long gone hundreds of millions of years before Earth enters her elder stage.  And we will be billions of years gone before our planet succumbs to the kind of death perhaps foreshadowed by the fourth planet.  In this light, the increasingly popular view of Mars as the only hope for our future may be more than a little ironic. 

      Existence for H. sapiens is meant to be green and thriving from beginning to end.  Here and now, in this time and place where we belong. 

      But it will only happen if we exist as the planet exists:  in a mature state.  The paradoxical consequence of living in a state of arrested cultural development is a hastening of the onset of planetary senescence leading to premature death.

      Such a hastening is exactly what occurs as a result of agriculture, particularly large-scale, mono-crop graniculture.  Put another way, a tilled/harvested landscape is a landscape being rendered both immature and geriatric at the same time. 

      How?  By repeatedly breaking the soil and preventing the shrubs (now called weeds) from ushering forth the next successional stage in the landscape maturation process, the soil is degraded, not only from the breakage, but because the nutrient return facilitated by the shrubs is not allowed to happen.  And so, even as the land fails to mature, the onset of untimely landscape decrepitude commences. 

      The capacity to so disable the natural life-cycle of the land is no simple feat.  On the contrary, it requires massive energetic expenditures from those who would attempt it.  Today, so much energy is required to operate at the industrial scale and rate, machines must be used.   For the earliest agriculturalists, who lacked even animal power, the effort often quite literally broke them, leaving them bent and spent by their third decade.  And the nutrition they obtained in return for their labor proved to be of far poorer quality than a wild diet.  Research has shown that the combined effect rendered the original farmers smaller in body and brain and prone to dental malformation, early degeneration and premature death when compared to their non-agricultural forebears and neighbors8.  In short, what agriculture does to the land it does to the bodies of the people who depend upon the practice.  As such, the motivation for anyone to take up the plow becomes hard to fathom.

      Nevertheless, Mark Nathan Cohen appears to have done so in his book The Food Crisis in Prehistory9, where he argues that agriculture offers only one real benefit over non-agricultural ways of life: it can, in the short-term, support more people per acre.  This, of course, is the exact quality that would have become significant at the end of the age of dispersal when the habitat vacuum finally closed. 

      The food crisis was actually a population crisis; the excess could no longer be externalized, and agriculture — soil mining to increase food supply to allow adolescent cultural growth to continue — was one potential response, chosen by only six of the thousands of cultures then spanning the habitable Earth.  Not surprisingly, the deepest stories and arts of agriculturalists — their origin myths and mutually-reinforcing iconography — put a positive spin on this response and celebrate the violence of dominion and conquest it entails as ordained, glorious and holy (if back-breaking) work, which is celebrated for its own sake regardless of the damage it does to the Earth in all her many wild forms.

      However, between 10,000 - 6,000 years ago, agricultural acceleration proceeded at an almost imperceptible rate.  The agricultural societies of Southwest Asia were all about fertility; fertile soils to grow the food to feed the fertile women who were bearing far more children than their non-agricultural (mature) neighbors or their own ancestors, even when dispersal was still an option.  Many of these societies worshipped the Goddess — the feminine source of fertility — and for a time this religious emphasis on the feminine aspect allowed them to prosper. 

      Then soil depletion and salinization began to impact yields.  After that, what had been a few too many mouths to feed became far too many mouths to feed and famine arose for the first time ever.  Also new were the diseases that corresponded with living in close proximity to the animals that had been domesticated in conjunction with plants.  These animals — dogs, goats, fowl etc. — were literally brought into sedentary human households where mutated strains of diseases common in these forms of life came to afflict humans.  These afflictions — small pox, tuberculosis, measles, chicken pox, influenza, even the common cold — repeatedly decimated the populations of early animal domesticators in the same way they decimated Native American populations at the time of European contact, only we who are the descendants of the original domesticators have simply forgotten the pathogenic horrors domestication unleashed on our own ancestors. 

      These horrors were the symptomatic manifestations of the violation the act of domestication (enslavement) represents.  They were the ecological expressions of a relationship rooted in the theft of wild freedom, a freedom once enjoyed by these fellow beings as well as the humans who came to keep them.  The unheeded message the diseases were sending was a call to restore the proper relationship whereby these kindred beings would live by their own wills until the moment they gave themselves to human hunters and gatherers, who were obligated to reciprocate with gratitude and humility for the gift of life, and pass it on in their turn.   

      Instead, more aggressive land clearing commenced in more marginal areas requiring more brute force to deforest and thus transform into fields and pastures.  As a consequence of the growing need to wrest sustenance from ever more uncooperative and untrustworthy earth, often with the use of livestock (enslaved animals such as horses and oxen), the emphasis on the feminine gave way to an emphasis on the masculine.  Yet, despite the increased labor, the resultant yields quickly proved insufficient to meet the increasing demands.  Concurrently, the diseases became endemic. 

      And so, by about 6,000 years ago, these hard-pressed people faced the same choice as before: engage in numeric self-restraint and come into balance with their land base (undergo cultural maturation) or continue the process of degradation (pathological cultural adolescence) to the point of ecosystemic collapse and die off.

      Or they could go for a third option made possible by agriculture itself and honed in the enslavement of animals used to fight the battle against the trees.  

      Wars of conquest.

(Coming next:  Beyond the Longest Childhood, Chapter 3 — The First False Dispersal)