The Animal in the Dark Tower

by Ran Prieur

February 9, 2004

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[December 5, 2012. I've decided to keep this one unchanged. There's so much stuff I no longer agree with, that to edit it to fit my current thinking would destroy it, and to annotate it point by point would be too much work. It basically comes down to different framing stories. At the time I was still mostly using a framing story in which repressive, destructive, disconnected societies, and large complex societies, are the same thing. Now I think this is a fallacy, resting on a semantic mistake of using the word "civilization" to refer to both things. Living out of balance is merely human clumsiness, possible in a society of any size, inevitable when trying something new, but also correctable.

Also, as in many of my early essays, I used the word "crash" to make a suggestion unsupported by historical evidence: that when a large human society is ecologically unsustainable, it ends suddenly and technolgical complexity drops deeply. Even in the pessimistic scenario in which we keep making the same mistakes, I don't think it will be a crash back to the stone age and a climb back to the 20th century, but a slow oscillation between moderate and high techological complexity, with each trough and wave unimaginable from the one before.

Livingston's concept of prosthetic being is important! It is possible but unlikely that we will use technology to rediscover the unmediated connection to nature of our pre-human ancestors. More realistic is for us to evolve a better prosthetic, so we are well-integrated with other biological life even though we're still indirectly connected. Right now I think the greatest danger to humanity is not failure but success: that we will use technology to turn so far inward that we lose interest in biological reproduction and go extinct.]

Industrial civilization is ravaging the Earth, and its participants are sick, stressed out, and alienated. Agricultural and pastoral societies are a lot less destructive, but destructive enough that they've turned formerly lush regions into deserts, and the lives of the participants are easier than ours but often narrower. Hunter-gatherers are the least destructive by far, do the least work (and their "work" is more like play), are the healthiest, and have socially rich, meaningful lives.

From here, it's only a short step to the political ideology that we should all be hunter-gatherers again, after we take apart this civilization or it falls apart on its own. This position is stridently condemned by people who (predictably) have a huge ego investment in civilization, who don't want to consider that they could have wasted their lives, or their history, so badly. They cry "romanticism" while themselves dreaming that technologies of domination and self-absorption will lead to utopia. Or they declare it categorically impossible to "go back," though that's what we've done all through history when our little civilizations have burned out. Or they correctly point out that the end of this system will mean a drop in the human population, as if the blame for the dieoff rests on the economy of the survivors and not on those who permitted billions of human lives to depend on the radically unsustainable exploitation of "resources."

If our species survives at all, it will be in societies more intimately related to the rest of life, and thus, according to Western mythology, "lower." What I'm arguing here is that the ideology of simply knocking down or outlasting civilization, and then simply being in these other societies, even hunting-gathering, does not go far enough.

The usual anti-civilization argument features a line between civilized and natural, such that on one side we use up the Earth and crash, and on the other side we can live in balance forever. Or, actually, there are two lines, one for what we can get away with in the future and one for where we went wrong in the past. Whether these lines must be in the same place, or may be in different places, is such a profound question that most people simply assume one or the other without thinking. For now I leave the question open.

In telling the story of where we went wrong in the past, the line is most often drawn at the invention of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. So on this side is a densely-populated, authoritarian, labor-intensive, Earth-consuming, expansionist society, domesticated and cut off from its roots, and on the other side are nature-based wild humans and all of nature, merged in perpetual harmony, disrupted only by the single exceptional event that spawned civilization.

If you're against civilization, it's comforting to believe that this event was a fluke. Then we only have to put the world back the way it was, and with the slightest precautions, this nightmare will never happen again. But given that something happened, we should assume it was prone to happen, more than half likely given the circumstances. The burden of proof is on those who want to say it was a fluke, and in this case, though they have some evidence and stories about how hunter-gatherers got tipped into settlement and farming, they're nowhere near proving that the shift was unlikely.

If you look at a thorough global timeline of prehistoric technology, you don't see a sudden movement beginning at the invention of agriculture, merely an acceleration of a movement toward domesticity that goes much farther back. Around 40,000 years ago there was an earlier acceleration, still unexplained. Anatomically modern humans might have appeared at this time, or much sooner, or even later, depending on your definition of "anatomically modern" and the evidence you focus on or exclude. This whole subject remains tangled in uncertainty and controversy, but in any case the technological and biological changes that made civilization possible, if not inevitable, have been going on for well over a million years, since fire and stone tools.

It seems -- though there is still debate -- that our harmonious hunter-gatherer ancestors exterminated a lot of species. For a good argument that at least some of these were killed off by a global catastrophe (other than that of domesticated humans), see Vine Deloria's book Red Earth, White Lies. But other extinctions occurred at different times -- and at the same times that humans appeared in those areas. Even in historic times there is evidence of ecological impact by hunter-gatherer societies. A recent analysis of the journals of Lewis and Clark found that the regions with the most diverse and abundant wildlife were the regions with the fewest indigenous humans.

Also, what happened, exactly, to Homo erectus and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis? One often reads that they were not "exterminated," merely "out-competed," as if the actual people faded into air as peacefully as the colored lines representing them on graphs, as if the extinction of an adaptable and intelligent human species in a world of wilderness can sort of happen by accident. If they ran short of food they must have been driven out of the land where they were getting their food, which would have required force, maybe the same kind of force with which Americans "out-competed" natives in the 1800's. Neanderthals had larger brains than us, so it's a reasonable guess that they were smarter, but apparently not as good at fighting.

John Livingston, in his book Rogue Primate, wonders if we killed them off because we were bothered by their wildness. That's just an aside in a radical and challenging analysis of human domestication.

Livingston distinguishes humans from all other animals by our reliance on culturally-transmitted technique: knowledge of how-to-do-it that is no longer dependent on nature, on having a place in the web of life, but on nurture, on abstract mental models learned from other humans. He calls this a "prosthetic being," an interface with the rest of the world that is no longer direct or intimate, but buffered or mediated by our intellectual and ideological devices.

He speculates that the tipping point was the taming of fire. From that time, our ancestors built an increasingly domesticated or idea-dependent culture, and here's the kicker: Out of that domesticated culture evolved Homo sapiens sapiens, us, already biologically adapted for domesticated life, with thin bones, weak muscles, dull senses, and brains specializing in abstraction.

Then we spread over the Earth and developed the whole variety of nature-based indigenous cultures -- but these cultures are still prosthetics: They are not a true merging with nature, only an uneasy fitting-together. Livingston writes:

Nowhere may the human presence be seen as fully integrated and "natural," because wherever we may be, or however long we may have been there, we are still domesticates. Domesticates have no ecologic place, and they show it consistently and universally. When non-European indigenous peoples received and began to use firearms, for example, they revealed their exotic placelessness without missing a beat.

A common anti-civ argument goes that "we" lived sustainably for more than a million years before the few thousand years of civilization, that stone age technology and only stone age technology has ever been sustainable, and that therefore we should live pretty much like we lived for that million-plus years. But that wasn't us! Those were our less biologically-domesticated hominid relatives. Arguably, Homo sapiens sapiens has never lived sustainably, by which I mean that we have had societies that gave as much as they took, but that these societies themselves were precarious, that they could and sooner or later did fall out of balance -- or get knocked out of balance by conquest or technological infection from some imbalance over the horizon.

I suggest that we draw the line in our heads not between industrial civilization and hunter-gatherers-plus-nature, but between Homo sapiens sapiens and all other life -- and of course not in the sense that we are more "highly" evolved, but that we have evolved to some strange place off to the side, isolated and dangerous, the animal in the dark tower.

Maybe everyone would be better off if we just went extinct. But that's not realistic as a goal or even politically viable as an argument, and it would put us in the extremely civilized mental space of fixing a problem by killing the bad guy. There is no problem, only a situation, one that demands more complex understanding and action than just knocking down the technological infrastructure -- although that would certainly feel good, and it would greatly decrease the assault on nature ... for the moment.

The situation is that particular civilizations keep crashing but the human tendency to fall into civilization persists. Roughly, we do it by using our hyper-flexible technique to invent ways to get some obvious benefit by doing some less obvious harm. The harm could be geographically distant, or far in the future, or concealed in the perspectives of other creatures, or even right in front of us but subtle. And once we've done it, we're in a feedback loop, tending to become dependent on the benefit, to extend and intensify our destructive practice, and to hold back our empathy or our "self," so that we don't notice the harm because that awareness would jeopardize the whole racket.

How can we ever avoid this trap? There may be no exit, nothing but to keep veering off and crashing, eon after eon, until we veer so far off and crash so hard that nothing survives bigger than a rat. Or maybe humans will continue to physically evolve off to the side, farther from our roots, more dependent on our fleeting technologies and cultures, making our extinction ever more likely. Or maybe somehow we can physically evolve into a more integrated animal, through some sci-fi scenario that's not as implausible as space colonies.

But the usual idea is that we will culturally evolve into a more integrated animal, and the simplest version of this is that we'll live like known indigenous peoples, anchored by the customs of our ancestors and our knowledge and love of our native place. But if this is all that's holding us to nature, then all it takes is for conquerors to force us out of that place, or eradicate the species we eat, or send our kids to school, or kill almost all of us, and we'll be disconnected and drifting, sucked into depression and probably into the culture of our conquerors.

Or will we? Some of the world's indigenous cultures have survived conquest and displacement, or are fighting it now, and they are not the same as they were a few centuries or decades ago, in that they now include awareness of civilization and techniques for resisting it, techniques that are evolving right now under intense environmental pressures. Even people with no indigenous cultural background, even people (like myself) who don't feel a deep bond with nature, are culturally evolving awareness of civilization and techniques for resisting it.

There may even be a level of evolving behavior deeper than learned culture, but not DNA. It's the level that tells a spider how to spin a web, or birds when to migrate, a level that biologists can tell stories about but have yet to explore. We could see it as a kind of species-wide group mind that can change over time. I suspect that this concept would not be troublesome or even surprising to most non-European and indigenous cultures, and even Western experimental scientists are starting to notice it. (See Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past)

In any case, it's not enough that we learn a location, a way of being that's in balance with nature. We must also learn a direction, a way of moving toward wildness. The mythology of our civilization is onto something when it says "we can't go back." We (individually and collectively) find it psychologically much easier to drift deeper into comfort and control and predictability, than to open ourselves to rawness and otherness and flux. How often does a child who wears shoes become an adult who goes barefoot? Have you ever seen a "property" owner remove a lock from a door? How many people, as they get older, have fewer possessions and care less whether those possessions get scratched? We try to go "back to nature" by moving to the woods and installing buildings and utilities, but how many people move to the city and take them out?

We have to learn, if not these changes, then thousands of changes like them, and the relentless focus and expansive awareness to drive them. If we don't, as long as we favor domesticating motion, we'll get a ratcheting effect that will seduce us from the healthiest society straight through self-absorption into hell. And if we do, if we learn to favor motion toward wildness, or learn to navigate the spectrum with full consciousness, then we can not only stabilize ourselves in stone age societies that are known to work -- we might also increase our range, and sustain ways of being that are farther from nature than the stone age -- or closer! As the drug trippers say, it's not how far you can go -- it's how far you can come back from.