The most fundamental thing to understand is that there have been two distinct, very different human lifeways.
We lived in the original Way for the millions of years since evolving from the ape line. It was not perfect or ideal. It was diverse, completely as idiosyncratic as human beings are, with lots of crazy psychological stuff, not necessarily harmonious; but it was, for the most part, sustainable. Some tribes or villages were ecologically irresponsible and paid the price for depletion, but most were more sagacious and lived within the appropriate limits and balances.
For millions of years there were no states or empires. Life was local, simple, communitarian, place-centered, nature-centered. Life was cyclical, without any conception of “progress” or “development.”
Relatively recently, from the standpoint of natural history, in the wake of the Neolithic Revolution, a radical, traumatic social-cultural transition occurred. For most of the civilizational period that transition was viewed positively, as A Great Leap Forward. Only during the last fifty years or so has there been a full appreciation of its consequences and ramifications.
Gary Snyder wrote about the “Old Ways” and the “New Ways” back in the seventies, but he didn’t make it a primary focus of his writings. Around 1995 many of us were stunned to read Daniel Quinn talking about Leavers and Takers (in Ishmael). Or, a decade later, to read Charles Eisenstein’s The Ascent of Humanity: “It explores the development of what he calls the ’separate human realm,’ drawing distinctions between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies. In Eisenstein’s view, a greater sense of separation from nature began with the emergence of agriculture and has been accelerating to the present day.”
The “New Ways” (dating back to Sumer, five thousand years ago) have been socially and ecologically problematic and have led inexorably to the modern condition that I call “MITS” (mass institutional-technological society). Trying to get a handle on this, trying to encompass a description of the totality, theorists have come up with various appellations:
. the artificial environment (Theodore Roszak)
. the Technosphere (Barry Commoner)
. the produced world (Karl Marx)
. the surrogate world (Edward Goldsmith)
. second nature (Murray Bookchin)
. urban-industrialism (Theodore Roszak)
. the Megamachine (Lewis Mumford)
. the Apparatus (Karl Jaspers)
. Empire (Samuel Alexander)
. the domination system (Riane Eisler)
. the Organized System (Paul Goodman)
. the cosmopolitan global economy (Helena Norberg-Hodge)
. the synthetic environment (Murray Bookchin)
. the Industrial Goliath (Rudolf Bahro)
. the Leviathan (Fredy Perlman)
. the global totality (John Zerzan)
. consumer society (Ted Trainer … vs. conserver society)
. Taker Culture (Daniel Quinn … vs. Leaver Culture)
. Empire Culture (David Korten)
. death culture (Darryl Cherney)
. the power complex (Lewis Mumford)
. the construction of an artifactual world (David Watson)
Whatever you choose to call it, it’s stressful on people and on the planet. It’s a source of oppression for most of humanity. Our liberation depends upon deconstructing it.
* * * *
[Samuel Alexander, co-director of the Simplicity Institute, is a lecturer at the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.]
Recent archeological evidence suggests that indigenous Australians have walked these lands for probably 65,000 years or longer. At once there is a striking lesson here: Australia’s First Peoples did not undermine ecosystems in fatal ways. I do not want to romanticize indigenous culture or suggest that Aboriginal Australians did not have impacts on ecosystems and wildlife. They did. But the fact is that the First Peoples were able to live on this land for tens of thousands of years without degrading the land-base or fundamentally destabilizing Earth systems. On the whole, ecosystems were able to regenerate sufficiently to allow for traditional cultures to be maintained over tens of thousands of years. It could be argued that this type of longevity or sustainability is the first and most important feature of any truly civilized culture: viability through deep history and capable of living on into the deep future. And yet, Aboriginal cultures were dismissed as uncivilized and primitive — invisible through the colonial lens adopted by the British Crown.
Compare this, then, with the industrial civilization which the British Crown brought with it and established, which is merely two or three hundred years old. Over this very short timeframe — a blink of the eye in geological timeframes — human beings have become so destructive that we have become geological forces. So significant has been our impact that Earth scientists now speak of the ‘Anthropocene’ — the first geological era caused by humans. In fact, industrial civilization is not so much an era as it is an event. Our industrial and extractivist form of life is decimating wildlife populations and driving ever-more species to extinction, deforesting the planet, destroying topsoil, disrupting the climate, emptying the oceans and poisoning waterways, overconsuming renewable resources, and is overly dependent on non-renewable resources. Plastic is contaminating essentially every ecosystem on Earth, from the deepest reaches of our oceans to the most distant corner of Antarctica. In the haunting words of James Lovelock, the face of Gaia is vanishing.
So, we might fairly ask ourselves: which way of life, in the greater scheme of things, is more civilized? Is it the dominant culture and economic system today, which in a matter of a few centuries have degraded this rich ecosystem in ways that are threatening the viability of our species and all other species? Or is it the culture that was sufficiently civilized to live on the Australian continent for 65,000 years without destroying the planet?