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Chapter 2

Civilization and Other Hazards

by Aric McBay

The only defense of this monstrous absurdity [cap and trade schemes] that I have heard is, “Well, you are right, it’s no good, but the train has left the station.” If the train has left, it had better be derailed soon or the planet, and all of us, will be in deep doo-doo.

—James Hansen, climate scientist

try telling yourself
you are not accountable
to the life of your tribe
the breath of your planet

—Adrienne Rich, feminist poet and essayist

So what are we up against?

Think for a moment about the ecological legacy of the dominant culture, its wholesale destruction of entire landbases (“impact on the environment,” in the mealy-mouthed words of industrial apologists).

The Aral Sea, between what are now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is a perfect example. Its name means “sea of islands,” after the thousands of islands scattered across the once-fertile waters. In the 1950s, the USSR instituted an intensive industrial irrigation program meant to turn the Aral Sea’s basin into a vast cotton plantation. At the time the sea was still huge—by area it could easily have swallowed Denmark, Sri Lanka, or the Dominican Republic. But the sea shrank rapidly from the 1960s onward, starved of water, and the growing salinity wiped out fish and other creatures. Now less than 10 percent of the sea remains. The moderating effect of the sea is gone; once-temperate summers are hot and dry, the winters long and cold. Where there was once a sea filled with life, there is now a dead and dusty plain, made toxic by decades of accumulated fertilizer and industrial waste. Vozrozhdeniya Island (well, formerly an island) holds the ruins of a Soviet bioweapons facility. Abandoned ships scatter the poisonous plain, their rusting hulks monuments to a time when the sea had fish—and water.

It’s hard to think of a better term than postapocalyptic. But the apocalypse is not yet post; the remnants of the sea continue to shrink. There were three separate salty “lakes” left from the Aral Sea, but as I write one lake has finally succumbed and evaporated. Now only two briny, toxic remnants remain of the vast sea of islands.

What happened in the Aral Sea is happening everywhere, and fast. It took fifty years to turn the Aral Sea into a desert, but that same area of land is lost to desert every single year in the rest of the world. It’s not hard to find entire biomes that have been destroyed by this culture. The prairies of the American West. The ancient forests of the Middle East. At this point it’s much harder to find a biome that hasn’t been destroyed.

And in some places those in power are just getting started, like in the case of the Athabasca Tar Sands under much of northern Alberta. The tar sands are subterranean deposits of bitumen mixed with sand, with many of the deposits underlying boreal forest. (If you were looking to find the “least destroyed biome,” the world’s boreal forest would be a good candidate; pre–global warming, anyway.) To get at the tar sands, oil companies literally scrape away the living forest and soils on the surface. Then they dig out the sands, taking about two tons of sand per barrel of oil they produce. Then, water drained from nearby rivers is used to wash the bitumen out of the sand—several volumes of water are used for every volume of oil—leaving a toxic water-oil by-product that kills fish, birds, and indigenous people living in the area. If you simply hated the land and wanted to destroy it, you would be hard-pressed to find a more vicious way of doing it.

Huge quantities of natural gas are used to cook the bitumen into a synthetic oil. The energy required means that oil produced from tar sands produces at least five times as much greenhouse gases as conventional oil. If you wanted to come up with even nastier way to consume fossil fuels, congratulations.

All of this is a clear pattern. The dominant culture eats entire biomes. No, that is too generous, because eating implies a natural biological relationship. This culture doesn’t just consume ecosystems, it obliterates them, it murders them, one after another. This culture is an ecological serial killer, and it’s long past time for us to recognize the pattern.

The crises facing the planet do not stem from human nature,1 but from, as we previously discussed, the mode of social and political organization we call civilization. What do we need to know about civilization to defeat it?

It is globalized. Civilization spans the globe and, despite superficial political boundaries, is integrated infrastructurally and economically. Any local resistance effort faces an opponent with global resources, so effective strategies must be enacted around the world. However, civilization approaches finite limits—83 percent of the biosphere is already under direct human influence.2

It is mechanized. An industrial civilization requires machines for production. Mechanization has centralized political and economic power by moving the means of production beyond the scale at which human communities function equitably and democratically. It has created a dramatic population spike (through industrial agriculture) and global ecological devastation (through industrial fishing, logging, and so on).3 Most humans are now dependent on industrial “production,” while the system itself is utterly dependent on finite minerals and energy-dense fossil fuels.4

It is very young on cultural, ecological, and geological timescales, but seems old on a personal timescale. Civilized history spans a few thousand years, human history several millions, and ecological history several billions.5 But since much traditional knowledge has been lost or destroyed by those in power in order to glorify civilization, normalize their oppression, and render alternative ways of living unthinkable, we have the impression that civilization is as old as time.

It is primarily an urban phenomenon. Civilizations emerge from and promote the growth of cities.6 Cities offer a pool of workers who, crowded together and severed from land, must labor to survive.7 Urban areas are densely surveilled and policed. Urban areas are epicentres of strife when civilizations fall; as Lewis Mumford wrote, “Each historic civilization … begins with a living urban core, the polis, and ends in a common graveyard of dust and bones, a Necropolis, or city of the dead: fire-scorched ruins, shattered buildings, empty workshops, heaps of meaningless refuse, the population massacred or driven into slavery.”8

It employs an extensive division of labor and high degree of social stratification. Specialization increases production, but a narrow focus prevents most people from making systemic criticisms of civilization; they are too worried about their immediate lives and problems to look at the big picture. Similarly, social stratification keeps power centralized and maintains an underclass to perform undesirable labor. Modern civilization, with its vast manufacturing capacity, has so far produced a large middle class in the rich nations, a historically unique circumstance. Though such people are unwilling to risk this privilege by challenging industrial society, prolonging collapse will ensure that they lose that privilege—and much more.

It is militarized. Civilizations, intrinsically expansionist and voracious, are intensely competitive. The military is prioritized in politics, industry, and science, and this sometimes rears its head as overt fascism. Control of citizens is implemented through police. As anthropologist Stanley Diamond wrote, “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.”9 Glorification of the military causes people to identify with the state and its spectacular violence, and advertises the consequences of fighting back.

Closely related, and in spite of feminist advances, civilization is patriarchal and exalts masculinity. Civilization systematically oppresses women and celebrates the masculine expression of power and violence.

It is based on large-scale agriculture. Hunting, gathering, and horticulture cannot support civilizations. Only intensive, large-scale agriculture can provide the “surplus” to support cities and specialized elites. Historical agriculture was heavily dependent on slavery, serfdom, and cruelties. Industrial agriculture depends upon petroleum, an arrangement that will not last.

From the beginning it has been predicated on perpetual growth. This growth is inseparable from agriculture and settlement; settlement requires agriculture, which results in population growth and militarized elites who control the resources, and begins to overburden and destroy the local landbase.

Societies, cultures, and businesses that expand in the short term do so at the expense of entities that grow more slowly (or not at all), regardless of long-term consequences. In other words, civilization is characterized by short-term thinking; the structure of civilization rewards those who think in the short term and those who take more than they give back. Because those in power take more than they give back, they often win in the short term. But because ultimately you cannot win by taking more from the land than it gives willingly, they must lose in the long term.

Because of its drive toward war, ecological destructiveness, and perpetual expansion in a finite world, the history of civilizations is defined by collapse. Throughout history, civilizations have either collapsed or been conquered, the conquerors going on to meet one or both of those fates. Collapse is the typical, not exceptional, outcome for a civilization. As Gibbon wrote of Rome: “The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it subsisted for so long.”10

Civilization is hierarchical and centralized both politically and infrastructurally. This is self-perpetuating; those in power want more power, and they have the means to get it. Superficially, global power is held by a number of different national governments; in the modern day those governments are mostly in the thrall of a corporate capitalist elite. In social terms, civilization’s hierarchy is pervasive and standardized; most political and corporate leaders are interchangeable, replaceable components. The corollary of the centralization of power is the externalization of consequences (such as destroying the planet). Wherever possible, the poor and nonhumans are made to experience those consequences so the wealthy can remain comfortable.

Hierarchy and centralization result in increasing regulation of behavior and increasing regimentation. With the destruction of traditional kinship systems and methods of conflict resolution caused by the expansion of civilization and the rise of heavily populated urban centers, those in power have imposed their own laws and systems to enforce hierarchy and regulation.

As a means of enforcing hierarchy and regulation, civilization also makes major investments in monumental architecture and propaganda. Past civilizations had pyramids, coliseums, and vast military marches to impress or cow their populations. Although modern civilizations still have monumental architecture (especially in the form of superstores and megamalls), the wealthier human population is immersed in virtual architecture—a twenty-four-hour digital spectacle of noise and propaganda.

Civilization also requires large amounts of human labor, and is based on either compelling that labor directly or systematically removing feasible livelihood alternatives. We’re often told that civilization was a step forward which freed people from the “grind” of subsistence. If that were true, then the history of civilization would not be rife with slavery, conquest, and the spread of religious and political systems by the sword. Spending your life as a laborer for sociopaths is only appealing if equitable land-based communities—and the landbase itself—are destroyed. In other words, civilization perpetuates itself by producing deliberate conditions of scarcity and deprivation.

Civilization is capable of making Earth uninhabitable for humans and the majority of living species. Historical civilizations self-destructed before causing global damage, but global industrial civilization has been far more damaging than its predecessors. We no longer have the option of waiting it out. There is nowhere left to go. Civilization will collapse one way or another, and it’s our job to insure that something is left afterward.

The dominant culture isn’t only a serial killer—it’s also an amnesiac. Entire species and biomes are not just wiped out, but forgotten. And worse, they are deliberately erased, scratched out of history. People don’t recognize this culture’s pattern of ecocide because they don’t mourn for all that has already been lost, been killed.

Everyone knows what a penguin is, right? Well, the name didn’t always refer to the cute Antarctic birds. The name, which means fat one, formerly referred to the great auk, the seabird that populated Atlantic islands in vast numbers. Only when the great auk was hunted to extinction (and then forgotten by most) did the moniker move to the South Pole.

Cod are another example. Abundant cod swam off the coast of Newfoundland and the Maritimes. They were so numerous that it took a long time to fish them to the brink of extinction.11 And yet, you can still buy cod at the grocery store. Why? Because the name has been taken for marketing reasons. If you buy something labeled cod, you no longer get true Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). Instead you get something that has been deliberately mislabeled: rockfish (Sebastes spp.) or Alaska pollack (Theragra chalcogramma) or the poisonous oilfish (Ruvettus pretiosus). This constantly happens in the seafood industry—a species is wiped out, and replaced by a renamed or deliberately mislabeled fish. And then that one is wiped out and the cycle continues.

All of this gives grocery shoppers and eaters a sense that things are fine. They hear about bad things happening to fish on the news, maybe, but there’s still plenty to eat at the store, so what’s the problem? But if you take a moment to think about it, this renaming is deeply disturbing. It’s like going home to find that a serial killer has murdered your family and replaced them with bystanders plucked off the street, renamed after your dead kin. The killer sits there in your house, grinning, insisting that everything is fine.

We don’t need to know every single casualty of this culture to fight back (although every one I learn about fills me with more ardor to do so). But we cannot understand the severity and urgency of our situation, nor can we formulate an appropriate response, without first understanding at least some of these crises.