How To Save Civilization

by Ran Prieur

September 5, 2007

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"Civilization" is often defined like this: "Thousands of years ago, humans slept in caves, communicated with crude grunting noises, were stalked by wolves and saber-toothed tigers, lived in a state of constant scarcity and extreme stress, and died of old age at 30 if we weren't killed in tribal warfare. Life was 'nasty, brutish, and short' and nature was 'red in tooth and claw.' Then, through a series of innovations, we started living better and better, a trend which continues to this day and will continue on into the future without limit, if only we can save civilization from being destroyed by 'terrorism' or climate change or some other external threat."

This story is so wrong that you could call it a strawman if it wasn't so popular. In response, the primitivist strawman goes like this: "For a million years, humans lived in Eden, in peaceful, egalitarian, nature-based societies. We could recognize thousands of species and the relations between them, and with this direct grounding in ecology, we knew to keep population stable and not deplete the land, so we always had plenty to eat, and spent only a few hours a day in meaningful productive activity, and the rest of the time relaxed and played. Then, around 10,000 years ago, through a million-to-one fluke, someone invented grain agriculture -- we started forcing food from the Earth instead of taking what it gave. Because grains feed opiate receptors in the brain, we didn't stop. Because grains are loaded in calories and low in other nutrients, we suffered from deficiency diseases and also exploding population. We became crowded and competitive, and put our spare energy into warfare, so agriculturalists could conquer land from foragers, massacre them, cut down the trees, and plow fields to grow more grains to make more people to require more land and resources -- a vicious cycle of cancerous growth that continues to this day, but will eventually run out of room to take without giving, and collapse, or we'll bring it down ourselves, and then we can go back to being happy forager-hunters."

In broad strokes, this is true. Many of the tribes observed by European conquerors, or more recently by anthropologists, really are peaceful, egalitarian, happy, and healthy. But other tribes are nasty and brutish. We have very little evidence about how peaceful or violent humans were 100,000 years ago, let alone how happy. We do have evidence that increased lifespan is not an effect of civilization, but possibly a cause! According to this article, Older age becomes common late in human evolution: "...there is a dramatic increase in longevity in the modern humans of the Early Upper Paleolithic. We believe that this great increase contributed to population expansions and cultural innovations associated with modernity."

Cultural and technological innovations are not all bad, did not become all bad at a certain time, and did not suddenly start with agriculture after a million years of stasis. Prehistory was dynamic and accelerating, and I can't prove it, but I think 40,000 years ago humans were already smart enough that it was only a matter of time before we fell into a self-reinforcing cycle of giving ourselves power beyond our wisdom. And all through this frightening age, alongside the countless massacres and wars, the turning of millions of square miles from forests to deserts, the greatest species extinction in 60 million years, the stress and alienation of modern life, there have also been continuing wonders and improvements and learning.

Certainly, we can "go back" if we want to, but most of us will have the desire and the ability to integrate what we've learned over the last few thousand years into the world to come. If our ancestors could integrate fire and stone tools, can we integrate windmills and sailing ships and libraries? How about ice cream and flying machines and hot tap water and Wikipedia? The problem, right now, is that so many of the things we like about civilization are tied to things that cannot or must not continue -- consumption of non-renewable resources, extermination of the biosphere, and a billion jobs that nobody would do if they weren't forced.

To save civilization, we must redefine it with a sharp knife. I'm going to separate it into two things, which have historically gone together but don't have to: complexity and growth. Or, to be more precise, relatively high complexity and ratcheting increase, where the numbers keep getting bigger because there's no way built into the system for them to get smaller, except collapse.

Numbers have been getting bigger for so long that we have mistaken increase for a natural law. Even our scientists have misinterpreted cosmological redshifts as evidence that the whole universe is expanding. In reality, natural law is for everything to go in cycles, rise and fall, growth and decay. Nature does have ratcheting increase and sudden collapse, like the life cycle of a single tree. But it also has gentle rises and falls, like waves in the ocean, or the fluctuation of animal populations in a healthy ecosystem. I think we have the power to choose which of these patterns complex society follows.

Certainly we can't keep increasing. Civilization is a subset of nature even if we're not aware of it, and the dark side of our recent increase was a decrease in topsoil and forests and fossil fuels and the Earth's capacity to absorb industrial waste without catastrophic change. Now these things have decreased so far that our habit of increase can no longer feed itself. With the housing crash, the falling dollar, and the decline in middle class income, we're already tasting the coming age of numbers getting smaller. Next: the stock market, easy credit, the GNP, energy production, energy consumption, and human population. Many of us are already preparing for the Age of Decreasing Numbers, but for the wrong reason. We think we're turning off the air conditioner and bicycling to work to save the Earth. In fact, other people and other economies will just take our place at the Earth-gobbling table and eat it just as fast. What we're really saving is our future sanity, by practicing for the day when we're forced to reduce consumption.

At this point, people start talking about being "sustainable," but that word has now picked up so much baggage that it's almost meaningless, and it was never precise. Strictly, even the sun is not sustainble -- in a few billion years it will burn out. The word I suggest instead is stable, applied not to products or technologies but to whole systems.

The sun is stable because its heat and light fluctuate within a narrow range. A business that sells hand-made clay passive solar water heaters can claim "sustainability," but if it has to continually increase sales to survive, it is unstable. An unstable system is shaped like a ball at the top of a hill -- as soon as it starts rolling in any direction, it keeps rolling faster and faster until it runs into something with a big crash. This is also called positive feedback. A stable system uses negative feedback -- it's like a ball at the bottom of a bowl, where the farther it moves in any direction, the greater are the forces pulling it back toward the center.

Civilization as we know it is unstable, because too many of its processes are increase-only. No engineer would design a plane that can only increase its speed and altitude, but we do it everywhere: When has a government reduced the number of laws? When has a new computer operating system been leaner than the old one? How often does a food store move into a smaller space and carry fewer products? Have we ever torn down a housing development and planted a forest? When did cars ever get easier to fix? I thought two-bladed razors were a silly fad -- now they're up to five. Apparently only a stand-alone product can be a fad. A feature on a product, no matter how ridiculous, can never be removed.

We've seen what happens when governments add laws and don't remove them. Eventually there's a revolution, a period with no laws, and then they start over with a few. Do we really want this to happen with food? With the computers that now run almost every aspect of our world?

Complex systems collapse when they have no way to get simpler other than collapse, and because complexity itself is subject to diminishing returns. This isn't universally true: A good underground house is more complex and more efficient than a hole in the ground. A rocket heating stove is more complex and more efficient than a campfire. A sailboat is more complex and more efficient than swimming. "Complexity is subject to diminishing returns" is a local law, true only in systems where complexity keeps increasing compulsively, where complexity is valued for its own sake and not tested against efficiency.

If we want to save this particular civilization, it would not be enough to stabilize population and energy consumption. We would also have to abandon economic "growth," and abandon technological "progress" defined in terms of complexity or size or power. It wouldn't be the end of innovation -- engineers would just shift their focus to efficiency and elegance. I'm already using an operating system, Puppy Linux, dedicated to staying tiny while increasing usefulness. The Nintendo Wii, with an innovative controller and simple accessible games, left the Playstation 3 with its massive processing power in the dust. Ikea revolutionized the furniture industry with little more than boards and screws. One Laptop per Child is intended to ramp up the "developing" world, but something similar could ramp down the overdeveloped world and stabilize the computer industry -- if so many careers and egos didn't depend on making computers constantly faster and more powerful so you can sell people a new one every two years.

I don't think this civilization is going to make it. But civilization in general, defined simply as a highly complex society, is almost certain to persist. In the following sections, I explain why I think so, and what we would have to do to keep it stable, instead of suffering repeated rises and falls. Stable does not mean static -- nature itself is stable without being static. The future of human society, like its past, will be dynamic, but it need not be catastrophic.

Food. I suppose it would be possible to feed a stable society with giant fields of grain and cattle, but it would be a terrible design decision. Without energy-intensive machinery, farming needs the hands and eyes of internally motivated skilled workers, and with that kind of attention, we can get much better yields with a variety of plants and animals in symbiosis. When pre-industrial cultures do this it's called "horticulture," and when post-industrial cultures do it it's called "permaculture." It's not only more efficient than agriculture, but also allied to more benign human societies. (See Toby Hemenway's essay Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?)

Where we have lower population density, we can go another step toward nature, and forage and hunt from habitats carefully maintained to maximize human food and general abundance. The more we look, the more we find this strategy in tribes previously considered pure foragers. Evidence compiled in books like 1491 and Keeping it Living now suggests that much of the New World had been managed this way -- that the incredible fecundity found by the conquerors was not achieved by leaving nature alone, but by actively tending it in vast regions that were effectively giant forest gardens.

Population. In agricultural societies, you have as many kids as you can, because they're your farm workers and they'll take care of you when you're old. Also, when there was still a lot of the world left to eat, cultures that forbade contraception had a competitive advantage and tended to conquer and spread, instead of stagnating like they do now.

To stabilize population, you need only two things: First, contraception, including both easy access and a culture that accepts it. Second, a society where kids create more work for parents than they save, which you have if there are not a lot of poor farmers and if everyone is guaranteed comfortable survival. In many industrialized nations, especially Russia, populations have been falling for years -- or they would be without immigrants from agrarian cultures -- whose children or grandchildren, fully assimilated, drop to a low industrial birthrate.

It would be technically easy to voluntarily reduce global population, but politically messy, and the way it ends up happening is anyone's guess. On the one hand, when animal populations decline, it's usually through reduced birthrate in response to limited resources, and rarely through mass starvation or disease epidemics. But there's plenty of precedent for human epidemics, like the Black Death in Europe, and smallpox in North America, and I have no doubt that there's worse stuff than that in biowar labs.

A slow reduction would be more likely to lead to stability, because the survivors of a steep die-off would have more room to bounce back into runaway growth. In any case, we're likely to have both stable and unstable societies, and it will be important for the stable societies to defend themselves from conquest, and to assimilate immigrants into their stable cultures. We may see the reverse of the early days of Empire: the benign societies will be more technologically advanced than the malignant societies, and able to stop their spread.

Nature. By "nature" I mean the totality of wild biological life on Earth, measured by abundance and diversity, and valued on its own terms. The extermination of nature, like other aspects of increase-based civilization, gets more difficult the farther it goes. Species go extinct because they're adapted to particular niches and habitats, which we fill with toxic waste or turn into farms and suburbs. So the species that are most narrowly adapted, most specialized, are the first to go. And the deeper we get into mass extinction, the more we get down to generalists, species that are highly adaptable and thrive in disturbed environments.

We call them "weeds" or "invasive species," and predictably there is now a strong anti-invasive movement, which has ties to the herbicide industry, and talks about plants the way Nazis talk about Jews: outsiders are creeping in and multiplying, and we must exterminate them before they corrupt the biological purity of our homeland.

Sometimes exotic species do destroy ecosystems on their own, but more often, "invasive" species are just the best nature has to work with to recolonize areas that have already been thrown out of balance by humans. I know some people with land near mine, who have to constantly kill spotted knapweed in their hay field. It keeps coming back because a hay field is a continually disturbed environment. On my land, knapweed covers a spot for a couple years, and then goes away by itself as part of a succession of recovery, which might go through pearly everlasting and great mullein, or St. John's wort and thimbleberry, and finally to grand fir or western redcedar. I've also noticed that the plants most hated by humans, spotted knapweed and hound's tongue, are most loved by the bees.

So unless we do something much worse, nature's not going away, just getting tougher and simpler for a few thousand years, or a few million. The best essay I've seen on the subject is David Quammen's "Planet of Weeds".

Energy. Before Peak Oil, we had Peak Topsoil and Peak Wood -- all three are stored carbon, and extraction of energy from topsoil and forests went into decline a long time ago. The so-called "green revolution" in the last century was mostly about increasing yields on dead soil by eating oil. Now oil production is set to decline, and we're supposed to hope for some new source of even more abundant energy. That would be the worst thing that could possibly happen. The deeper problem is that we are on an airplane designed by madmen to only work if it keeps going higher and faster, and the higher and faster we go, the harder we will eventually crash.

Even solar energy is not necessarily stable. It's been said that we could meet all our needs by covering 1% of the planet's surface with solar panels. What they don't say is that our actual needs are much less -- our present "needs" have been artifically created by a system addicted to runaway increase, and if this system can keep itself going by covering 1% of the Earth with solar panels, soon we will find that we "need" to cover 2%, 10%, 100%, and then when the crash comes there won't be any plants left.

A stable civilization needs a stable source of energy -- one that tends toward a certain level, and gets pulled back toward that level with more force, the farther we get from it. The safest energy source is the old-fashioned one: solar energy gathered by plants. The danger is that this will not be our only option, that the tech system will come through the collapse with an energy source that is capable of self-reinforcing increase, and if anyone anywhere chooses that path, they're likely to force us all into another round of human cannonball.

Wood and Grass. Limiting ourselves to solar energy gathered by plants does not force us to live "primitively." Plant matter can be converted to alcohol, which can be burned in engines or converted to electricity. Poplar and switchgrass are much more effective biofuels than corn and soy, and if grown responsibly can generate energy and rebuild topsoil at the same time. Of course, there will always be the temptation to do it irresponsibly and cover more and more of the Earth with poplars and switchgrass...

Metal and Plastic. Metalworking is almost certain to survive. From the Lindsay catalog you can get a collection of books that tell you how to build a full metal shop starting with nothing but scrap and charcoal. Even if that knowlege is lost, it will soon be rediscovered if there is still metal around, and there will be. We won't be mining much, because the easy ores are gone and the difficult ores require sophisticated high-energy techniques. Instead, we will be in the Age of Scrap, scavenging and recycling finished metal from garages and factories and landfills. We have bronze artifacts that have survived since the Bronze Age. Maybe they'll call us the Aluminum Age or the Stainless Steel age or the Age of Concrete with Little Holes where the iron rebar has rusted out. Even iron can be reclaimed. Jared Diamond describes in Collapse how the Vikings extracted it from bogs -- our descendants will surely figure out how to extract it from the soil under car graveyards.

There will also be plenty of scrap plastic, and not much new plastic since it all comes from oil. I expect a minor renaissance of new techniques to recycle old plastic. Today's landfills might become so valuable that gangs fight each other over scavenging rights.

Roads and Rails. Possibly the most enduring legacy of the industrial age will be its roadbeds. Even if the road surfaces turn to crumbled asphalt and weeds, they follow relatively easy paths through gaps blasted in slopes and over land-bridged gullies. Even after tens of thousands of years, crossing a mountain range will be easier than it was 200 years ago. So postindustrial societies could surpass preindustrial societies in travel, trade, and broadness of perspective, with a little investment in clearing landslides and replacing bridges.

Railbeds are even better than roads, because they're built with gentler slopes, and get first priority in the best passes. The rails themselves are likely to be taken for scrap, or in remote areas left to rust. Ideally, old railbeds will be converted to trails and roadways with low-maintenance surfaces.

Bicycles and Horses. Nothing in civilization or nature travels as efficiently over land as a human on a bicycle. If there ever is a stable low-energy society with enough complexity to make ball bearings, bicycles or their descendants are likely to be the main means of travel, mountain bikes on rough wilderness routes and road bikes on well-maintained urban roads.

Where horses surpass cyclists is in their ability to get energy directly from grass. Also they're stronger, and easier to "manufacture." So horses could have a big role in grassy regions or in a deeper crash. There are more horses now in the USA than there have ever been, and in a pinch, we'll quickly find out which ones are good for pulling loads or long-distance riding, and the rest can be turned loose to re-adapt to wildness, or eaten.

Cars and Planes. The automobile might be the worst invention of all time, even worse than the leaf blower. It goes way beyond energy: In Toward a History of Needs, Ivan Illich calculates that Americans in cars devote far more of their time to transportation than third-worlders on foot, if you include the time spent in wage labor to pay car expenses. Once we have cars, we ruin our cities, spreading all the places we go miles away from each other and filling up the space between with pavement and toxic fumes. And then we need cars, and wage labor assignments, to live in this society. Cars rob us of our autonomy, sicken and kill us, consume massive amounts of nonrenewable resources, and don't even save us any time.

But these are effects of the particular way we use cars: as our primary means of transportation, and inside cities. I don't see the harm in keeping a few around for trips between cities -- but if there are only a few, the cost of road maintenance per vehicle is astronomical.

What about airplanes? The ones we have now are energy-intensive because their function is to carry heavy weights at high speed. But a hot air balloon riding the wind is extremely efficient. It's possible, with innovations in materials engineering and engine technology and hull design, that we can make aircraft that can go against the wind with enough efficiency to be the main means of travel between cities -- especially if it's only people going between cities, and not freight.

Cities. Primitivists argue that it's impossible to have a stable city, because a city requires the importation of resources, and therefore inevitably depletes the surrounding land. But every animal "imports" resources by eating and "exports" resources by excreting waste. The problem with modern cities is that the waste does not go back to the soil, but is mixed with industrial toxins and dumped in sewers and landfills. With universal recycling and composting, including humanure composting, people at any density can export as much as they import.

Of course we still have to obey carrying capacity: The amount of life an area can support is limited by the sunlight that falls on it and the plants that absorb that sunlight -- which we can increase through permaculture. A city considered alone exceeds carrying capacity, but imagine a 50 mile radius circle, importing and exporting no biomass, with a number of humans limited by the requirement that the land maintains or increases fertility over time. There's no reason they have to be evenly spread out. Many of them can be densely concentrated in a permanent settlement at the center, and this settlement has advantages. It allows more cultural complexity, and it can support centers of learning and healing and manufacturing and trading that would be difficult with a dispersed population, and that would benefit both urbanites and the surrounding rural populations. Leopold Kohr had this vision decades ago: a whole world of politically autonomous city-states, each one with an urban center existing symbiotically with surrounding farmland. We can now improve on Kohr's model, by replacing "farming" with permaculture and managed foraging habitats.

But another thing Kohr emphasized was the importance of scale. We don't have ants the size of dogs, or the size of bacteria, because the ant form only works in a narrow range of sizes. Likewise, human social forms are scale-sensitive, and quantitative changes bring qualitative changes. This is why a Communist state doesn't work like a commune, why large businesses turn evil, and why Kohr made his utopian cities politically independent. The bigger we grow a government, or any institution, the more it tends to serve big-institution needs and not human needs (let alone the needs of nonhumans).

With the wrong structure, even small cities are too big. Anthropologists have calculated, and anecdotal evidence has confirmed, that when a group of humans gets bigger than about 150, it undergoes a phase change where people can no longer work things out socially, but only with the help of rules and central control. This doesn't mean we can't have big systems. The Iroquois ran a huge region with a system where small groups would gather and talk until they reached consensus, and then each group would send a representative to a higher-level group that reached consensus, and so on. This was the inspiration for our American "democracy" in which a hundred million people watch propaganda and then impose the tyranny of the majority on each other.

A healthy big system needs to be composed, as far as possible, of sub-150 semi-autonomous cells, the same way our bodies are made up of cells. The danger is that some of these cells will fall into a pattern of runaway increase and drag the rest with them. In the body this is called "cancer," and in the culture of Empire it's called "success."

Medicine and Insurance. Americans are beginning to notice that the problem with our medical system is not that some people lack insurance policies, but that the whole thing costs too much for our society to afford. What they haven't noticed is that this happened through the culture of "growth," enabled by the misuse of insurance. Originally insurance was a way to spread the cost of rare accidents through the larger community. But when insurance is applied to common events, it becomes just a sloppy way to redistribute wealth -- and if it's managed by corporations that seek profit and increase, then they will encourage increases in the scope and the cost of whatever they're insuring -- which they can easily get away with since people are insulated from the real costs, and don't notice until outrageous expenses have become entrenched.

We could fix the problem in months if everybody had to pay medical costs with cash out of pocket, and if patients without cash either got turned away or treated free. But that would collapse 90% of the medical industry (the wasteful 90%), so it's politically impossible. The best we can do is watch the expensive system gradually break down -- or pull back to serve only the rich -- while we build new cheap systems through the cracks. But the cheap alternatives now growing through the cracks do not know how to set a broken leg or take out an appendix. A lot of people are going to die or go to the Blackwater debt camps before we sort this out. And even if the new system is based on herbs and dietary supplements and reiki, if we don't change the underlying pattern of growth plus insurance, our grandchildren will find themselves in debt for life after a week in the Holistic Healing Megaplex.

Money. One feature of modern civilization, something we all take for granted, is absolutely incompatible with stability: interest, or the charging of money for the use of money. For complex reasons, interest forces economic growth, and leads economies into runaway increase. Also, interest forces economic inequality, because those with economic power (money) are able to leverage it into greater and greater power. Interest is positive feedback in its purest form.

Ancient civilizations understood this, which is why many of them had religious laws against usury, or a Jubilee tradition, where every few decades, debts were forgiven and property was redistributed. This was a peaceful way to reset a growth-based economy and enable it to start fresh. Debt forgiveness ended with the Roman Empire, which proceeded to rise higher, get uglier, and fall harder than its predecessors.

An even better way to stabilize an economy is through negative interest, where the borrower pays back less than the amount of the loan. This has an effect similar to inflation, but without the destabilizing effect of a constantly increasing money supply. The benefit of negative interest can be spread beyond loans to an entire economy through a demurrage currency system, in which money "goes bad" over time. This discourages hoarding, makes it challenging instead of automatic for the rich to get richer, and leads people to keep their money in circulation and spend it on things with enduring value.

Ancient Egypt had a thousand years of prosperity when their money was in the form of grain that incurred storage charges. Many of the great cathedrals of Europe were built under the Brakteaten system, in which governments taxed people by recalling metal coins and shrinking them. In 1932, deep in economic depression, Wörgl Austria issued local currency that depreciated at 1% per month. The town became prosperous, the system spread to neighboring towns, and the central bank got jealous and killed it. The weakness of demurrage currency is that it goes against the flow of the age of Empire and increase. In a hypothetical age of decentralized stability, it should be a perfect fit.

Games. When I was a kid, we played a board game called Life, where you drive your pink and blue drone family around in a plastic car, and if you don't get doctor or lawyer on your first spin you have no chance of winning. And of course there was Monopoly, where you learn to sympathize with predatory rents and the inevitable accumulation of all property in the hands of a single player, and Risk, in which the armies get bigger and bigger until one player naturally conquers the whole world. Now we have computer strategy games that give us a little rush of addictive pleasure for every increase in territory or production or the strength of units, and fantasy adventure games that hook us with "level grinding" and accumulating money and items.

We're so deep in the myth of increase and triumph that it's hard for us to imagine any other kind of game, but there have been a few. I got this idea from the book Finite and Infinite Games: In a game allied to a stable culture, the goal is not to win but to keep playing. Surfing works like this, and bull riding, and the old arcade game Asteroids, but the best example is hacky sack, which is low-tech, cooperative, and all about intercepting high-velocity erratic motions and turning them into gentle motions back toward the center.

Single-player computer games never show descent -- they just stop at the very peak and say, "You win!" But some online multiplayer games have experimented with reset mechanisms, like the cyclical armageddon in The Reincarnation, or the plague in Warcraft. I look forward to a strategy game that gives as much time and thought to falls as it gives to rises, with algorithms for resource exhaustion and infrastructure decay and the corruptive influence of power and the loss of morale in non-autonomous workers and the loss of adaptability as systems age. A really good game could simulate an ever-shifting landscape of technologies and artifacts and social forms growing and decaying without end. Maybe we're already in one.

High Tech. If the present system keeps going another hundred years, computers could run on light instead of electricity. We'll have new materials with miraculous properties. Biotech will enable us to design and grow fantastic (and dangerous) creatures from scratch. Any of these trends could threaten catastrophe -- and the discovery of limitless energy would guarantee it.

But within ten years, industrial society will be deep in the Age of Decrease, and most high tech, especially the computer industry, depends on hundreds of subsystems that could break down. Technologies are lost all the time -- NASA can no longer put people on the moon, because it requires a body of human expertise that has been lost as technicians retired or died. The full might of industrial civilization cannot duplicate the cathedrals of medieval Europe, because they were built with stone masonry skills developed over generations. If the skills embodied in the computer industry were put aside, even for a few years, could we duplicate a microprocessor?

I don't think we'll have any technology in 2100 that can't be done in 2050 in a garage -- or in a network of garages and scrap collections. If there's anything we want to save, we need to begin adapting it now so it can be done on that level, bottom to top. Garage industry doesn't have to profit or die. It doesn't require wage laborers who will quit when money no longer buys food. Technology will be carried through industrial collapse by dedicated amateurs, and then, whether the next world is stable or unstable, they will plant the seeds of a new tech system... which is very likely to make another epic mistake.