Good news! Homo sapiens will probably not be among the thousands of species doomed by the Sixth Great Extinction. It’s only civilization that will be lost. We have constructed an artificial ecological niche that is too specialized to be sustainable. But can we let our power-mad power structure and ecocidal economic order collapse while somehow hanging on to what matters most? It’s time to re-join the natural world and build communities of mutual support for long-term sustenance and survival.
In the lexicon of modern mythology, “civilization” is the best thing that ever happened. Unquestionably it has given us much to be thankful for: a life of relative comfort and ease, a blossoming of individual self-expression, an incredible panorama of art, science, music, medicine, technology and more.
But at what cost? These blessings are far from equitably distributed. Look closely and you’ll find they have been paid for by the labor and suffering of those who benefit least: migrant fieldworkers, sweatshop workers, minimum-wage workers, dirt-poor communities of color from Cancer Alley to the slave-wage plantations of Asia, not to mention factory-farmed animals, the legions of lost species, and the children who will inherit a devastated planet. In one way or another, almost all of us are victims of what Lewis Mumford called “the Megamachine.”
So what’s the solution? As if picking up where Mumford’s two-volume The Myth of the Machine left off, Derrick Jensen’s two-volume Endgame (2006) prescribes drastic surgery. Nothing else will do, he argues, but to “take down civilization.” He lists a litany of irrefutable indictments: the oppression of colonized peoples and the empire’s own underclass, disappearing populations of salmon and polar bears and honeybees, the collapse of ecosystems worldwide. He scoffs at pacifists who recoil at using the weapons of the oppressors to defend the oppressed. He describes in excruciating detail what it would take to demolish a dam or hack into the computerized systems of control, and bares his own inner wrestling with the ethics of sabotage.
But what he fails to do is to convince me that these desperate measures would have any more effect on the Machine than the protest rallies and nonviolent resistance he disdains. As the angry young activists of the Stop Cop City movement have learned, sabotaging the technological machine only hands the metaphorical Machine more power. Recent laws in Georgia and other states have twisted the Constitutional right of protest into the crime of “domestic terrorism.” Every blow against the empire gives the empire another pretext to curtail our freedoms.
So if taking down civilization is not the answer, what is? The good news is the bad news: the Machine is programmed to self-destruct. The algorithm of profit leads inexorably to catastrophic climate change. The algorithm of power leads inevitably to nuclear holocaust, whether by accident, insanity, human error, or AI “hallucination.” Renewable energy and electric cars won’t save us if the global economy must robotically continue to grow. The theme song for our Age of Technological Triumph turns out to be the early Pink Floyd track “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”
But the crash of civilization is not the end of the world. Tragically, many beloved individuals will be lost; if we insist on a “civilized” lifestyle, the Earth cannot possibly support us all. But nature will survive, so even as we remain economically dependent on the Machine, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually we must begin to unplug ourselves from the world-view called “civilization” and shift our allegiance to the biosphere that nourished our species from infancy.
Civilization as Child Abuse
How could the ancient Egyptians spend their lives building royal tombs for the Pharaohs? How could the Aztecs voluntarily submit to human sacrifice for their priest-kings? These scenarios of past civilizations seem as incomprehensible to modern Westerners as a suicide bomber who sacrifices his life for a dubious eternity in Paradise.
But why not ask how millions of people can go to work day after day for corporations that are systematically wrecking the planet? Or how patriotic young Americans can be lured into military “service” to defend corporate profits? Or how even spiritually aware, politically progressive, environmentally astute people can blindly accept a disposable cup, and blithely throw it away?
If you grow up in a world where everything in life revolves around the divine right of kings (or corporations), a religious dogma (or a paradigm of economic growth), a rigid caste system (or the individual freedom to consume), you might be content to live and die as a cog in that particular Machine. If you object, odds are that the Machine will roll right over you.
Throughout history millions of people did object, and millions courageously resist and rebel today. But tens of millions more look around at the carnage, recognize their own complicity, and find ways to numb themselves: alcohol, drugs, shopping, entertainment, guilt, depression, rage that erupts in random violence, in abuse of loved ones or a hated scapegoat, in self-abuse and even suicide.
Psychologists habitually trace mental disturbances like these to individual childhood traumas. But the Buddhist deep ecologist Joanna Macy sees in them a suppressed collective grief for the devastated Earth, rooted in love. Her book Active Hope (2012) illuminates how despite our socially programmed belief that we are separate from and superior to nature, deep in our DNA we harbor a subconscious love for the world and the community of species with whom we co-evolved over millions of years.
Though in my opinion Derrick Jensen’s rage leads him astray, he does offer a key insight, hard-earned through the ordeal of healing from sexual abuse: civilization itself is a collective childhood trauma we’ve all grown up with. Just as the trauma of abuse feeds the abuser’s regime of power and control, our estrangement from nature feeds the many dysfunctional habits and coping mechanisms that prevent us from tackling our collective abuser. But rather than a heroic fantasy of sabotage, Macy offers “The Work That Reconnects”: breaking through denial and despair to reclaim the love that is the root of our grief, freeing ourselves from the paralysis of grief so love can inspire us to action. (More about Joanna Macy here.)
Reclaiming Our Ecological Niche
Unplugging from the Machine requires a frightening leap into the unknown, but it doesn’t mean ejecting from the airlock of the Mothership to flail alone in space. It means turning back to nature, our estranged Mother, to embrace the living world and our place in it – both the physical place where we live and our proper place as humans in its ecological design. Scientists are beginning to document how spending time in nature boosts our immune system and psychological well-being. Its spiritual benefits are even more healing, though harder to quantify.
The next step is to seek out other people on a similar path. The Machine maintains its power by cunningly exploiting our genetically programmed loyalty to the tribe; true community is therefore its natural rival. Anyone on the path to a deeper relationship with nature will naturally converge with others. More than likely such a community or a network of communities already exists in your area, and each person who joins makes it stronger. Once you get connected, you’ll find it tied into others across the country and around the world in a vast mycelial web – a global movement of people taking action in a breathtaking range of ways to “build a new society in the shell of the old,” as the visionary slogan of the Wobblies put it a century ago.
The power of this movement does not lie in its potential to overthrow the Machine. That impossible hope is what paralyzes so many of us. Its power lies in the communities it builds and strengthens. Whether or not community is an explicit goal, working together, eating together, and celebrating together – the basic elements of tribal life – organically make community happen. Any worthwhile collective project will have tangible benefits for those it serves, but its most important benefit is to build the communities we’ll need to survive and rebuild as the Machine comes grinding or crashing to a halt.
And like the collective grief that paralyzes us, the collective work that connects us is rooted in love. The activists I know have taken on a host of different causes, from serving the homeless to defending forests to ending war, but all are motivated by love for the defenseless victims of civilization, human and otherwise. Even those whose primary motive seems to be outrage are bellowing out an anguished love for those they see suffering under the tank-tracks of the Machine.
We can’t rely on government, corporations, police, or FEMA to get us through what’s coming. That is what the movement for Climate Justice is all about: mobilizing and empowering the victims of civilization for survival. And that includes all of us who are ready to withdraw our support from the Machine. This does not mean we stop voting! It means voting not just on Election Day but every day, in word, deeds, and dollars, for a just and sustainable future. Hopefully we still have time to prepare – but we have no time to waste. The time is now to build strong local communities based on the ancient tribal values of Mutual Aid and love for the living world.
I’ll be back next month with some inspiring concrete examples of how this is already happening. If civilization lasts that long, I mean.
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