“Civilization” refers to both a set of modes of production and a broad group of cultural ideas. Derrick Jensen defines it as “a culture — that is, a complex of stories, institutions and artifacts — that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities, with cities being defined — so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on — as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”
Civilized modes of production exhaust local resources by overconsumption — as in the case of fisheries and forests — or through unsustainable uses — for instance, agriculture, which, until very recent advances, invariably led to soil erosion, salinization, declining fertility or some combination of the three.
The historical results of such a reliance on unsustainable use are documented at length in Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Collapse.” They are also evident in the violence to which civilizations must often turn to guarantee the flow of new resources.
American culture is the heir of a chain of civilizations that moved, seeking fresh land from the Fertile Crescent toward Western Europe over centuries. It is extremely difficult for us to peek outside the values of our culture and see it objectively.
For instance, it is often hard for us to imagine how people can live without agriculture, electricity and writing, let alone acknowledge that they might be, in some ways, better off than we are.
Leaving aside theory and culture for a moment, we should consider civilization by its deeds and its results. Iowa has lost half its topsoil since the introduction of Old World farming techniques. Iraq was once covered in cedar forests so thick sunlight couldn’t reach the ground. Now, it’s a desert.
Over 200 species go extinct every day due to pollution, global warming, invasive species, and civilization’s conversion of living habitat into parking lots and monocultures.
In light of this and much, much more evidence, I hope you don’t think it’s a stretch for me to suggest that non-agricultural and non-industrial cultures are more sustainable than civilization. I am not over-generalizing or idealizing “primitives.”
It’s simply the case that, on the spectrum between “ecologically perfect” and “killing the planet in 10,000 years,” most so-called “primitive cultures” fall on a very appealing section.
Numerous civilizations have eroded the capacity of their land base enough that they have simply failed. The land was no longer able to provide the resources needed to sustain bloated populations, megalomaniac rulers and other luxury consumption.
The same fate awaits the entire globe today. Water use is quickly outpacing available supplies; soil has already reached famine scarcity in many parts of the world, and greenhouse gas emissions threaten the long-term habitability of the planet for humans.
Industry is overwhelmingly the culprit in these processes. There are numerous mechanisms by which consumption can be violently reduced, and none of them are pleasant. The alternative, of course, is a voluntary shift away from the ecological suicide of civilization.
Yet ask yourself: Can you imagine this culture voluntarily converting to a sustainable way of living? Can you imagine it doing so quickly enough to keep our planet livable? To me, the answer is quite obviously “no.”
Let it suffice to point out that our culture’s response to the scarcity of easy oil has been to expand production of unconventional sources like hydrofracking, deep-sea drilling and the tar sands. Rather than developing less destructive ways to fill our energy demands, we have shifted to massively more destructive ones.
An analysis that recognizes the inherent unsustainability and violence of civilization puts environmental activism in a whole new light. The goals and the strategies of our movement change from reforming the system and offering sustainable alternatives to dismantling the system and replacing it.
Without active resistance, there is no way we can save our planet. Those in power have not and will not respond to reasoned and informed entreaties. They are beneficiaries of a social structure that rewards their pathological behavior.
Lawrence’s Environmental Studies program claims to prepare students to “become thoughtful and informed participants in efforts to address… environmental problems.” Yet, without providing an analysis that identifies root causes, it is very hard for students to focus their efforts and develop winning strategies.
I’m not saying that my position is the only one or that any discussion of these issues will necessarily lead students to it. Saving the planet is the task at hand, and we don’t have time to be ineffective.
To be effective, we need to know who our enemy is, so to speak. Without careful academic guidance, the pursuit of such an analysis can lose rigor and focus. The ENST department — students and faculty — should rise to this challenge.