Thinking Through the Fall

by Ran Prieur

February 21, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Edited and annotated November 27, 2012]

The most naive way of thinking about the future, after the escapist fantasy of techno-utopia, is the eco-liberal mantra that we must stop destroying the earth right now, or it will be "too late." This civilization is incapable of stopping or even slowing down what it does. Like any system based on concentration of wealth, it is a machine whose only behavior is to keep taking more and more until it runs out of resources and implodes. Not only that, but unless all the ecological specialists who made their "last chance" warnings in the 1970's and 1980's were wrong, it's been too late for a long time now. This raises the question: Too late for what?

[The word "implode" suggests a sudden system-wide catastrophe, which is historically rare, and more rare the larger the system. And "incapable of slowing down what it does" is vague and false under any interpretation, unless "what it does" is so broad as to include adaptations that enable a system to muddle through a crisis.]

Not for life on earth. For countless species of fungi and bacteria, who call food what we call toxic waste, the future is looking better than ever. Most plants and insects, and even some small mammals, are in no danger of being exterminated this time around. I believe that even humans are safe. If we wanted to go extinct, we would need to bring our whole species to a uniform level of utopian domestication and helpless dependence, and then let the whole thing crash. Instead we're making a billion people as tough as rocks with the barbaric global violence that makes "advanced" society possible.

[While it's true that the spread of civilization was terribly violent, I credit that to human clumsiness rather than logical necessity. Global violence per capita has been steadily dropping, unless you count economic domination, which is probably increasing. And I think there is a serious danger that we might use technology to change human nature in ways that could lead to extinction without a crash.]

It might be too late for whales, eagles, giant trees, and many other species that we love (when it's convenient for us). And it might be too late for all but a few of our surviving non-civilized human cultures. What it's definitely too late for is a non-catastrophic transition to a sustainable society. And these catastrophes are easy to foresee:

["Sustainable vs unsustainable" is a deceptive simplification. Even the sun will eventually burn out. There will never be a perfectly sustainable society, but a large network of human behavior can maintain continuity indefinitely by gradually changing the many temporary supports on which it rests. None of the following paragraphs contain an argument that any catastrophe will be single and universal. In practice, catastrophes will be regional, local, or most often, on the scale of an individual life.]

Regional famines are caused by erratic weather, by depletion of the soil, by blights in monoculture crops, and by trade that permits large populations to live in desolate regions. All of these are becoming greater and greater threats, and we're only continuing to feed our population by feeding these threats, by borrowing against the earth's capacity to feed us in the future.

[So there will be regional famines, but historically more people die from the violence around extreme scarcity, than actual starvation. Some people will die, some people will move, and food production will adapt. Try to adapt sooner rather than later.]

Disease epidemics have ravaged humans ever since we started living in cities and traveling a lot. They're not just remote history -- the flu epidemic of 1918 killed 20 million people. Technological society claims to have defeated many diseases, when really it has just been running from them with vaccinations and antibiotics and chemical toxins. These are cheap fixes that actually weaken our ability to deal with the deeper causes of disease. Again, like someone falling into debt, we have only been increasing our troubles by pushing them into the future.

[Smallpox is almost extinct, and malaria deaths are dropping. Cancer deaths are still increasing, but again that's only catastrophic on a family scale. There will be regional outbreaks of infectious diseases, but instant global communication will allow us to quarantine them much better than in 1918.]

In the same way, we have been putting off and intensifying the inevitable disastrous effects of chemical pollution, radioactive waste, irrigation that concentrates salt and makes deserts, species extinctions, destruction of the earth's natural ways of detoxifying, and of course our own increasing alienation from the rest of life. Like participants in a pyramid scheme, we have been buying our "success" by stealing from the people who will come after us -- except soon those poor suckers will be us.

[Again, much suffering but no reason to expect a big crash.]

I expect the catastrophes to come in waves, a little one here, a bigger one there, teasing us and licking at our feet, until we're in them. The USA has more money, water, and good land than most places, so we won't be worst off, but we've been living so high that we might fall the hardest. Some time when you're on a busy street, in line at the post office, on the bus, look around. Get used to the idea that most of these people will not live a lot longer. Who among them would survive if the food stopped coming into the city for a month? A year? How many would survive as refugees, walking hundreds of miles in weeks? Who would lose the will to live before learning to eat rats and drink from puddles? In the worst epidemics 90% die and 10% live. Which group will that person be in? That one? You?

[New Orleans in 2004 was in the waves, but most of those people are still alive today and living the way they were living before. Even in Africa the food doesn't suddenly stop coming into a city. The shock of regional catastrophes will be partially absorbed by other regions.]

It seems unfair: The people who will pay are not the ones who borrowed. But what do the payers pay? A few weeks of suffering and an early exit from this horror movie. And what did the borrowers borrow? A lifetime of fear and denial half-covered by shallow pleasures. If we're going to survive mentally, we need to unlearn the value system that civilization taught us for its own benefit, and learn a different one, where death is not the unspeakable ultimate bad thing but a normal friendly part of life; where electricity and hot tap water are not necessities that elevate us from humiliating poverty, but minor luxuries, even fads; where living well doesn't mean insulating yourself from everything you can't predict or control, but having honest friends and a day to day life that's meaningful.

People know this. Of futures where humans survive after this system falls, one of the worst imaginable would be where the earth is barren but the violent selfishness of civilization continues. But we know this as the "postapocalypse" genre of popular adventure movies like The Road Warrior. That's how bad our own world is -- that we fantasize about a world with war, hunger, and no trees, just because we'd get to be outside all day fighting for something that matters, instead of cowering in sterile buildings rearranging abstractions.

I don't want to romanticize the collapse. It's not going to be a judgment or a "cleansing" where the bad people die and the good people survive. It's not going to have a clear beginning or end, and it's mostly not going to be fun. We will be throwing the stinking dead bodies of our families into pits and kneeling in garbage coughing up blood. But we may also get to break the pavement off the streets with sledge hammers and plant gardens. Within the humans-live earth-lives civilization-falls range of imagined futures, even the bad extreme is not so bad, and at the good extreme we see the earth quickly healing to its former fecundity, and people living peacefully with other life, and never sliding out of balance again.

[Both the negative and positive visions above are too dramatic.]

But why shouldn't we? Historically when great centralized empires fall, younger ones at their edges grow and take their place. Why should it be different this time?

Now it begins to get tricky. Obviously we don't just want to knock the system down to get revenge on it for forcing us to go to school. We want to make it so our descendants can live a million generations without ever falling back into this nightmare and dragging the earth with them. How can we do this? Is it even possible?

[The paragraphs that follow are a good example of why I now avoid using the word "civilization". It has too much baggage and blurs together a bunch of different things, including culture, values, consciousness, and the physical artifacts and connections that make an actual society. And there are important differences between large complex society in general, large complex societies as they were in the past, and the many ways that large complex societies might be in the future.]

What is the deeper disease, of which corporations and factories and police are merely symptoms, and how can we learn immunity? If this is the question, then the answer is not to just be Indians again, because Indians clearly did not have immunity and were overrun by civilization everywhere. Maybe we can return to the same economy, but if we also return to the same consciousness, I see no reason civilization won't overrun us again.

Indians are always quoted saying they "don't understand" civilization, and this is precisely why they're so vulnerable. It's why, when Columbus landed, people ran out to bring him gifts, instead of ... instead of what? What could they have done? The Seminoles went into the swamps and fought a guerrilla war and didn't do much better. How can a non-coercive society defeat a coercive one? That's what we're here to figure out, and whatever it is, it's not going to come from a perspective on civilization that says "We do not understand why you do not hear the earth screaming." It will come from a perspective that says "Oh yeah, civilization. Been there, done that." And it is only here, in the belly of the beast, that we can learn it.

I'm assuming that the permanent transcendence of civilized consciousness is possible, but we'd better not assume it's inevitable. We don't have to do anything to end any given civilization, but to end civilization in general, to stop one after another from rising and falling until humans go extinct, we will have to take focused, inspired, and audacious positive action. This action will be deep -- more on the level of emotions than ideas or physical tools; it will be more about being alive than being right; and it will be done with, or upon, people with the full-blown emotional plague, starting with ourselves.

Now we're walking a dangerous line. We have to go deep into civilization to get over it, but not so deep that we cripple the earth. Oops! It looks like we've already failed both ways: By the time this civilization crashes, the earth will be badly wounded, and still many people will be fighting to start the game again or keep it going -- not just hard-driving white yuppies, not just the super-elite preserving technology in their fortified compounds, but working people all over the world, who, when they're programmed successfully, are programmed to value laboring to gain advantage for their families in zero-sum games of money and social status.

[Now I'm more optimistic. If there is no global crash, but there is also no more cheap oil feeding economic growth, then people everywhere will shift their value systems to care less about material wealth.]

All the people in the world who have lost sight of their oneness with the earth, but not yet gained sight of the emptiness of their striving, will be fighting to rebuild the farms and factories and schools and offices and governments, and we're going to have to live with these people, and stand up to their abuse and protect the earth from them, as long as it takes for them to wake up.

[The more delicate parts of the biosphere are already doomed, and the tougher parts don't need our protection. And people don't just "wake up"; they become gradually more aware over thousands of years -- or they don't. There is no "we", no special enlightened population, but everyone is trying to live well and help others when they can.]

Even if it takes only a lifetime, that means your lifetime. Even if we can and do transcend civilization, nobody alive now will get to see this transcendence as a sudden happy event. For us it will be a process, drawn out, messy, and unresolved.

I don't know what exactly is going to happen, but I can guess! First, before things start to loosen up, they will get even tighter. For generations the most powerful, brainy, and wicked people in the world have dreamed of a high-tech global security state, and this is their big chance, their little moment on the stage. We will see retinal scans, chip implants, and every computerization of authority that you can imagine -- and to everyone's surprise it will all be an embarrassing failure, because systems run by technology are easier to scam, and inspire less loyalty, than systems run by people.

[Now I'm less optimistic. The danger is not a Soviet-style nation state, as mythologized by Orwell and Ayn Rand, propped up with computers. The danger is that technology will be too good at giving us what we desire even if it's bad for us, while all political power is held in a global network of money and intellectual property.]

Systems will break down in many ways and not at the same time. If somehow the whole world's technological infrastructure fell hard all at once, then it would not be rebuilt, and to rebuild something like it would take hundreds of years, because no one remembers the older technologies that the newer ones were built on. But I don't see this happening without a science-fictiony super-catastrophe.

In a complex and uneven breakdown, some societies will still have high-tech industry, and they will certainly use it to try to consume societies that don't. Like a fire that goes to where there's still fuel, the present system will live on where there is enough oil and emotional distress [attentional incompetence] to keep it going. Elsewhere, depending on how many people get left alone to try things, we might have a spectacular variety of local economies and societies. Then we can work out in practice what we can now only argue about: How much technology, and which ones, can we get away with without going out of balance?

Probably the most important thing happening right now is something I've completely overlooked. I remember what an old Soviet dissident said: "History is like a mole, burrowing unobserved."