Is Civilization is Inherently Unsustainable?

May 31, 2016 at 10:48 pm

Documentary calls for dismantling civilization before it’s “too late”

CIV4_SS4Making a case against civilization is about as tough as making a case against agriculture, primarily because most people don’t even know what the word means.

I know this because I’ve tested the theory out. A cashier at Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago was complaining about being tired and poor and having to work all the time. At the end of his rant, I shook my head empathetically and said – “civilization sucks.” He responded with the same confused look most people do when I start talking about agriculture or civilization.

I get it. I’m only recently learning about the pitfalls of agriculture and civilization myself.

I’ve been on a quest for the answer to why life is so hard since I was about 11, when I started reading the Bible. The answer was presented to me there in an easy-to-understand package – humans disobeyed their invisible authoritarian father in the sky and forevermore they were cursed to labor and toil in the fields for their food, rather than pluck it from the trees of a wild garden, where it used to grow on it’s own.

In college I stumbled upon a whole new world of conspiracy theories I attempted to piece together to explain how the average earthling had become so disempowered and enslaved.

And then, recently, I found a new explanation for why life sucks so much in – of all places – a book about the evolution, and cultivation, of human sexuality. I had no idea when I set out to read a book about the unnaturalness of monogamy I’d be getting a full explanation of the fall of “man”kind – agriculture.

You can read my last post for a full explanation of why agriculture may single-handedly be the worst mistake humans have ever made, but basically agriculture set the stage for global malnutrition, starvation, disease, slavery, social and sexual inequality, warfare and tyranny. No other development in the course of human evolution is responsible for as much suffering.

The unsustainability of civilization

Farming in EgyptPart and parcel to agriculture is civilization. Once people learned how to get more calories per acre through cultivation, they became sedentary and increased their populations. (Population densities of hunter-gatherers are rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 times that.)

It didn’t take long after the advent of agriculture for large cities – or civilizations – to pop up in the center of fertile land – Mesopotamia and Egypt for example.

In the documentary “END CIV” environmental activist and author Derrick Jensen defines civilization as “a way of life characterized by the growth of cities.”

He further defines “city” as “a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources.”

logoPopulation densities that require importation of resources – or cities – can never be sustainable, Jensen explains, because if you require a resource (say food or water) to be imported, “it means you’ve denuded the landscape of that resource, and as your city grows, you’ll denude an ever larger area.” Think of the present-day desert that was once the “Fertile Crescent.”

Lierre Keith – author of the Vegetarian Myth and co-founder, with Jensen, of Deep Green Resistance – also makes an appearance in the film, which is based on Jensen’s two-part book Endgame:

“You’ve got groups of people living in a dense enough population that the local land base cannot support them,” Keith says. “That means you have to get your basic resources from somewhere else, because you’ve used them up where you live. So you go out into the countryside, gather up whatever it is you want, and bring it back in.”

As Jared Diamond explained in the article above, agriculture encourages overpopulation, and overpopulation encourages agriculture. Agriculture gives people a false sense of food security and encourages them to have more babies than their “hunting range” can support. When food shortages catch up to population growth, cities – or civilizations – must grow outward, reaching farther and farther out for food and other resources, which further encourages the false sense of resources security and wider-spread overpopulation.

empire_mainIn the past, civilizations used to collapse when they ran out of easily accessible resources, Keith said, “the limit being the distance people could travel with horses or other pack animals.” The life of civilizations was extended when the Roman, British and other empires learned they could widen their resource “collecting” range with navy ships, and was further extended with the beginning of the fossil fuel age.

Now when we need oil to make synthetic fertilizers for our mineral-depleted soil – or to run our cars around in circles like chickens with our heads cut off – we just send a few fighter jets over to Iraq or Syria and take what we need.

“We’ve found energy resources [oil] that have allowed us to escape some of the kinds of limits previous civilizations have had to face much more quickly.” Dr. Michael Becker, author of Igniting a Revolution, said in the film.

Civilization is a pyramid scheme, bound to collapse

society_pyramidThough the lifespan of modern, global civilization has been lengthened by fossil fuel, it is still a pyramid scheme. And like all pyramid schemes, it is bound to collapse. It’s expanded its base as far and wide as it can, and now it’s digging deep into the earth for sustenance.

“Industrial civilization requires ever-increasing amounts of energy, land and resources of all kinds in order to perpetuate itself, in order just to maintain itself [without collapsing]… and we live on a finite planet,” Aric McBay, co-author of Deep Green Resistance, says in the film.

Jensen argues that no civilization – especially industrial civilization – can ever be sustainable. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any way of life that’s based on non-renewable resources won’t last.” And even the rapid consumption of renewable resources isn’t enough to sustain exponential human population growth.

In his book, EndGame, Jensen urges humans to start organizing now to dismantle civilization with the least amount of violence and destruction possible. There’s going to be violence and destruction either way, he says, but if we wait for Mother Nature to balance things out, the results are going to be more catastrophic.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say we are living in an ecological apocalypse,” he says.

Between the years 1980 and 2045 – a 65-year period – we will have lost more species of plants and animals than have been lost in the last 65 million years, the documentary points out.

This in and of itself is a sign of ecosystem collapse. Because all species on the planet are interdependent on other species, each extinction can cause a whole series of other extinctions.

The two main concerns presented in END CIV are peak oil (energy collapse) and runaway global warming (ecosystem collapse). The first is a given – we WILL run out of oil – which will destroy our industrial economy. The second concern is whether the economic collapse will happen before we’ve destroyed the planet.

But the folks at Deep Green Resistance aren’t looking to wind or solar power to save us from economic destruction. “No combination of alternative miracle fuels – biodiesel, ethanol, nuclear, solar, or used french fry oil – is going to allow us to keep our happy motoring society going,” Jensen said.

They are tired of green energy rhetoric and mainstream environmental movements, which focus on making “better” consumer choices.

The problem with the green movements, Keith explains, is they are all about saving civilization, rather than saving life on the planet.

Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.

We’ve gotten so desperate for more oil, the film notes, we’ve resorted to excavating “tar sands” in Canada that require of a barrel of oil’s worth of energy for every two barrels produced. Historically, in places like the Middle East, we’ve gotten an output of 100 barrels for every one barrel that goes into production.

The industry-sponsored scientists are all scrambling to figure out how to make an inherently unsustainable system more “sustainable” – and that is Jensen’s biggest fear, that the movement toward “clean” energy and bio-friendly products will mislead people into thinking industrial civilization can or should be saved, prolonging and worsening the collapse.

It’s hard to hate the hierarchy when you’re near the top

screenshot2One of the premises of Jensen’s book is that civilization is based on a largely unspoken of hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible or unnoticed by those in the middle. This is because most of the resource destruction and modern-day slavery Americans and other European nations benefit from is outsourced to less-well-armed – usually darker-skinned – parts of the world.

“You talk a lot about this culture being based on violence, but I don’t see it. I’m not violent,” an audience member said to Jensen during one of his lectures. Jensen replied – “First off, where is your shirt made?” The answer? Bangladesh.

sweatshop-workersMany Americans have bought into the lie that capitalism has empowered “third-world” countries. We believe that people born into them should be grateful to get a dollar-a-day working in factories, since, after all, they were making zero dollars before WalMart came to “save” them.  “We’ve improved their lives by giving them the honor of assembling our cheap clothing and plastic toys in sweat shops,” we congratulate ourselves.

What we don’t realize, is many of these “third world” people didn’t used to have a “first, second or third” classification. They used to just be free and equal human beings living off the land, with no need for money. But as empires have expanded, people have been forced off their traditional lands and into cities, where they have to work their asses off for money to buy food, rather than just going out and collecting it.

“We’ve bought into this notion that it’s okay that you have to pay to exist on this planet, and if you don’t pay some guy is going to come with a gun and make you pay,” Jensen said.

And historically, if uncivilized “savages” refuse to work for money, they are wiped out. “Generally indigenous peoples suffered a 90-percent-or-more depopulation rate upon having contact with Europeans through genocide or war for territory,” the film’s narrator said.

End Civ

post-apocalyptic-city-fantasy-hd-wallpaper-1920x1080-1475Whether you’re near the top or the bottom of the pyramid scheme won’t matter for long though. People need to forget worrying about economic collapse and start worrying about ecological collapse, Keith and Jensen say. Because even the rich can’t survive that.

“Scientists are saying the earth’s temperature might increase by as much as 10 degrees.” Keith said. “By that point, there may not even be bacteria left.”

“The sooner civilization comes down – whether or not we help it crash – the more life will remain afterward to support both humans and non humans,” Jensen said.

To learn about how you can help save the planet, check out strategies on Deep Green Resistance’s website and/or buy Jensen’s book:

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