Cities are Inherently Unsustainable, Ecologist Claims

Population densities that require importation of  resources are, by definition, unsustainable, documentary claims. We need to reshape society into small, self-sufficient communities or face unprecedented collapse.



In my last post I explained why agriculture may single-handedly be the worst mistake humans have ever made.

In short, it 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.

Part 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 agriculturalists 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.

Farming in Egypt

In the documentary END CIV, ecologist Derrick Jensen defines civilization as “a way of life characterized by the growth of cities.”

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


Population densities that require importation of resources – or cities – can never be sustainable, Jensen explains, because if you require a resource (say food, water or lumber) to be imported, “it means you’ve denuded the local 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 anthropologist Jared Diamond explains, 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.


In 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


Though 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 (fracking) 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… 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 renewable resources aren’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.

Because all species on the planet are interdependent, 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.

The folks at Deep Green Resistance aren’t looking to wind or solar  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 on top



One 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 on it 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 un-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.


Many 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


Whether 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.

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:

RELATED: Agriculture: “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

RELATED: Greenpeace Helps Corporations Destroy the Planet






35 responses to “Cities are Inherently Unsustainable, Ecologist Claims”

  1. Danielle Mora Avatar
    Danielle Mora

    I am relieved to know that there are others who share my views on civilization, but mainly, agriculture. Great work here!

  2. Randy Avatar

    I just want to point out that Peak Oil is not about running out of oil. In fact we will probably never run out of oil. The best analogy is that of water in your body. Do you need to completely have your body lose all of its water before you die? Of course not. You will die when your body loses 15% of its water. The same goes for industrial civilization. After oil has peaked, it willl only take a 15% reduction in supply to crash the whole system.
    Thank you for the article. Great analysis.

    1. Callum Avatar

      Very good analogy, spot on, thank you 🙂

  3. Paul Avatar

    very interesting article; convinced me not to buy the book 😉

  4. Bex Avatar

    It’s what happens…when you get domesticated.

  5. Monk of YHVH Avatar

    Godless Lifestyles are Inherently Unsustainable!
    As for dismantling before its too late? It was too late, before any of us were born! There’s not another life-form on any planet in the entire universe, that’s smart enough to know what it is doing, and then destroys itself anyway. Humans actually have careers that center around the continued and slow destruction of the very biosphere that sustains us: anyone that has anything at all to do with human constructs beyond basic micro-shelters (small homes). The very idea of a sustainable city is oxymoronic to anyone with a confirmed IQ north of 140. But that’s at the heart of the problem; we exist (as a species) in this danger-zone of intelligence: We are just smart enough to destroy ourselves! It is not civilization: I proved back in the 1990’s how sustainable it would be for 10 billion humans to live on Earth for millennia: They’d all have to be Amish! Oh, and ironically, it was scripture that foretold all the destruction that you/I are witness to, for the love of money is the root of all evil, because money can be hoarded, and wealth is power, and all Godless people (99.7% of all humanity, including the religious) are willing to sacrifice the future, for empowerment today; sexual or otherwise.

    1. simpleton Avatar

      you’re a genius

  6. Spu_orb Avatar

    I do think that yourself and others that proclaim that civilization, as we define it, is flat out unsustainable over time, are absolutely correct. Too many large civilizations have fallen due in part to resource depletion. I guess to believe otherwise we have to buy into the abiotic oil concept and magic. Wouldn’t it be a gas if they were right? Lol.

  7. Don Duncan Avatar
    Don Duncan

    I dispute “peak oil” & “global warming”. Neither are proven. Both are common memes used to control the masses. I dispute hierarchy is harmful, unless it is based on violence, threat thereof, or fraud. The worldwide faith in force (authoritarianism, totalitarianism) manifests itself in government, which is a mistake, an anti-life, anti-mind superstition. Without this dangerous superstition individuals would co-exist by voluntary interaction, as is compatible with human nature. This would free up our unlimited resource, our mind. All ways of life, all ideas would compete on the free market, and this would allow the best to survive, thrive, and evolve.

    1. Christopher Brown Avatar
      Christopher Brown

      Don, civilization itself is subject to the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. You might like to consider the theses written by Jared Godesky, available here:

      He deals with the problems inherent in increasing complexity itself, which is a defining characteristic of civilization, as well as problems with hierarchy.

  8. Налогоплательщик ЮЛ Avatar

    I do think that yourself and others that proclaim that civilization, as we define it, is flat out unsustainable over time, are absolutely correct. Too many large civilizations have fallen due in part to resource depletion. I guess to believe otherwise we have to buy into the abiotic oil concept and magic. Wouldn’t it be a gas if they were right? Lol.

  9. YandexBrowser Avatar

    I do think that yourself and others that proclaim that civilization, as we define it, is flat out unsustainable over time, are absolutely correct. Too many large civilizations have fallen due in part to resource depletion. I guess to believe otherwise we have to buy into the abiotic oil concept and magic. Wouldn’t it be a gas if they were right? Lol.

  10. RemoveWat Avatar

    I do think that yourself and others that proclaim that civilization, as we define it, is flat out unsustainable over time, are absolutely correct. Too many large civilizations have fallen due in part to resource depletion. I guess to believe otherwise we have to buy into the abiotic oil concept and magic. Wouldn’t it be a gas if they were right? Lol.

  11. Zaakiya Avatar

    I agree with the article, but the notion that monogamy is unnatural is just retarded. Humans are both monogamous and polygamous. There are men who decide on their own to commit to one woman/have one woman they are emotionally committed to. Same goes for women; all women aren’t monogamous, and neither are all men monogamous. Humans still form emotional bonds with one person. How is desiring only one person unnatural?

  12. FastStoneImageViewer Avatar

    I do think that yourself and others that proclaim that civilization, as we define it, is flat out unsustainable over time, are absolutely correct. Too many large civilizations have fallen due in part to resource depletion. I guess to believe otherwise we have to buy into the abiotic oil concept and magic. Wouldn’t it be a gas if they were right? Lol.

  13. […] RELATED: Civilization is Inherently Unsustainable […]

  14. […] RELATED: Civilization is Inherently Unsustainable […]

  15. […] faster than before modern humans evolved. According to environmental activist Lierre Keith, we will lose more species in the 65-year period between 1980 and 2045 than we have in the last 65 million […]

  16. Chanda Avatar

    I’m confused how several people are making the exact same comment, complete with the “Lol.” at the end. Hmm. Anyway.

    What is the answer? How do you convert the world’s civilized population to live in a way like the Hadza? With the huge populations that countries now have, is it even feasible to get rid of agriculture? I think if agriculture were to suddenly disappear today, no crops, no food, people would definitely have to resort to hunting and gathering in order to survive, but with so many people trying to supply enough meat and roots and berries and nuts… Those resources would be depleted to nothing, as well.

    Or I guess that would be the new norm for life. People can’t produce for themselves, so they die. Mass starvation, and whoever is left at the end will have to figure it out.

    That’s not really the answer, is it? What is the answer? How do we fix it? What is the actual plan to fix it?

  17. Ace Avatar

    Sadly bringing civilisation would lead to industrial, social and economical collapse. Also we’d lose global dimming, the world would warm up extremely fast in a matter of months. Cut emissions and in a matter of months or even weeks, we’d find ourselves above 4C.

    Global dimming is caused by burning fossil fuels, it’s the aerosols that gets released and reduces the amount of solar energy that reaches the surface of the earth. In effect, cooling the planet. It’s suppressing around 2.5 to 3C of global warming. Once emissions stop, global dimming is gone, and that 2.5 – 3C kicks in….taking us above 4C.

    Whether we keep burning fossil fuels and maintain civilisation or not, the end result is the same. Human extinction is inevitable. I reckon early to mid 2020’s when we’ll start to see civilisation collapsing as a result of climate collapse.

  18. Charlie Avatar

    I was really excited by the title of this article, because I’ve always wondered why people weren’t more curious/concerned about the “end game” of a system built on growth in a finite environment. So, I’m pretty on board with the overall thesis here that we need to at the very least stop the growth, or maybe take it even farther and start to dismantle.

    However, you start to lose me when you say things like “They (inhabitants of developing countries) used to just be free and equal human beings living off the land, with no need for money”. I spent a few years living in a village in Mozambique where most of the people lived a pretty cashless life, and my conclusion is that I wouldn’t wish that lifestyle on my worst enemy. Life expectancy is low, infant mortality high. Corruption ran rampant. Teachers can be bribed with chickens just as easily as cash. Local witch doctors prey on the ignorance of the poor and uneducated by demanding high fees (monetary or in kind) to rid their land of bad spirits. That’s not to say there are wonderful aspects of living there enjoyed by many people, but there are a lot of negatives too. Pretty much everyone there dreams of escaping to America or Europe, and I wouldn’t say they’re wrong to aim for a life in a more developed place.

    I think it’s a mistake to make out pre-civilizations as these utopias. Wasn’t it Pinker’s Angels of our Better Nature that mentioned a study that found that more than half of hunter gathers died by foul play? Can you imagine living in a non-civilization where more than half of the people you knew would be murdered at some point? Civilization, agriculture, and capitalism has saddled us with student debt, a society that values live-to-work principles, and a level of consumption that has become an existential threat, but it’s also lifted billions out of poverty, more than doubled the length of the average human life, prevented billions from suffering the pain of losing a child, created a global society that can read, and given half of that society god like abilities to access information, create, and communicate via the internet.

    Life has always been hard, but civilization has changed the nature of those difficulties. People used to spend almost all of their time not starving, not being killed, and keeping their children alive. Now we spend much of our time learning or accumulating money, and many of us have the chance to try to accumulate money in a way that we don’t hate. And after the studying/money accumulating portion of our day is over, we get to watch tv, read, use the internet, have a beer with friends, etc. I think most of our ancestors would have given a lot for that kind of life.

    If we could overcome the current resource crises, maybe someday the next stage of civilization could even alleviate the pains we currently still suffer. In any case, I think agriculture was a great idea and that it’s precisely because civilization is worth fighting for that sustainable living is so important.

  19. Mary Nelson Avatar
    Mary Nelson

    There is no answer. This is not a problem for which we seek a solution. This is a predicament we must live with as the results of our hubris play out.

    “You” don’t “convert” a population. There is no “you” that exists to do so. There is no “fix”. But dismantling the status quo is a place to start. And Deep Green Resistance can help guide us.

  20. Jotham Avatar

    You/We can’t fix it, Chanda. The earth has a carrying capacity. Agriculture was the start of stealing from future generations, Oil multiplied that 100 fold. We have achieved the great population we have by digging deep into the savings account that nature spent millions of years building up before we got here. With that savings running out. We have to return to the former carrying capacity

  21. […] RELATED: Civilization is Inherently Unsustainable […]

  22. Solar Invictus Avatar
    Solar Invictus

    You’re complaining that civilization isn’t sustainable when you haven’t even considered that civilization allowed you to have that computer to write about the article in the first place.


    1. Sara Burrows Avatar

      Good one. Very original argument.

    2. Jonny Wishbone Avatar
      Jonny Wishbone

      You obviously have very poor comprehension skills. Nowhere in the article did the author ‘complain’ about civilization becoming unsustainable, what ‘was’ stated in fact is that exponential economic and population growth is unsustainable on a finite planet with finite resources. The tools and products that the present resources have provided for us to this point are a matter of fact, so suggesting that the author did not consider that is ludicrous. Your comment, however, confirms the assertion that the people in the middle of this hierarchical system are oblivious to what is going on around them.

  23. […] Sara Burrows on Civilization is Inherently Unsustainable […]

  24. […] of us within the “radical” milieu are finding we identify with – is based upon the utter disaster that is civilization, especially industrial civilization. Leftists, right-wingers, environmentalists, liberals, […]

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  26. […] RELATED: Civilization is Inherently Unsustainable […]

  27. Daniel Avatar

    Great article. Another point, how are the spent fuel rods going to have water pumped over them until they are relatively stable, many decades after, the power goes out? Any chance humanity might have had left is probably destroyed once even a tenth of those melt down.

  28. […] civilization (city building) is a pyramid scheme. It is inherently unsustainable, as it relies on an ever-expanding base of slaves (or wage-slaves) […]

  29. Jim Avatar

    Have no fear. The forces of nature will protect life. Life will persist long after the last human life has extinguished. Step further back and see the biggest picture:. It’s not about us.

  30. Cam Avatar

    It doesn’t matter if you dismantle it. It will always come back. As it will, eventually after this collapse. Such is the cycle.