I’m interesting in the question how we got here.
That’s not much of a surprise.
Which means I’m looking into the very broad strokes of what got us from there to here. Broadly remembered points where if you were to time travel and alter it, a radically different future would emerge.
I understand people will quibble about details. Some, for example, insist that the invention of abstract thought, like a law of gravity, inexorably leads a species towards its ultimate demise. I’m afraid I’m not that pessimistic. Personally, I started this adventure reading the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn and believing farming was the source of all evil. I’ve modified that, though, over time, understanding that while that time was a turning point, it wasn’t as simple as picking up a hoe damning the human race.
My current list of what makes us ‘us’ runs like this:
- Commensal Ectosymbiosis by Fire (Birth of the Family of Man)
- Mutualistic Ectosymbiosis (Coevolution) with Wolves (Birth of Homo Sapiens and the rise of Tribes)
- Parasitic Endosymbiosis by Grass (Post traumatic creation of Homo Civitatis)
- Vector-Trasmitted Parasitism (The Rise of ‘Science’ / Industrial Revolution, Homo Civitatis Terminal Phase / birth of an E.L.E.-Extinction Level Event)
Points 1 and 3 on the list recognize that two powerful forces (fire and grass) shaped their respective points in history outside of human control. Without their input, Genera Homo or Homo Civitatis could not exist. The other two turning points mirror each other: the inclusion of a strong relationship (with wolves) and the deliberate exclusion of a set of relationships (with Science).
An Unhealthy Pairing
Constructal law dictates that for a system to persist in time, it must follow patterns that minimize resistance and maximize flow. This results in similar shapes seen in areas as diverse as river deltas to neural tissue. It also manifests in behavior. Genetics to epigenetics, epigentics to emotion. And lastly (for our purposes) sentience. All ways of dealing with resistance.
Came a time when the world changed dramatically and rapidly, affecting a vast number of human cultures, but opening up opportunities as well. Some adapted. Some died. The situation traumatized many. Out of this trauma arose a few dominant narratives. One was “It was our fault. We have to do better.” The other was “This was their fault, and they will pay for it.”
The followers of civilization call that second path “the birth of agriculture” or “the Agricultural Revolution”. It begins an abusive cycle of slavery, misogyny and misery that stretches from the beginnings of the Indus Valley to modern day. It is a system that requires exhaustive amounts of energy to maintain, which leads to frequent collapses that only add to the general unhappiness.
To compensate for that, people invented the idea of “pay now, receive later” with ‘rewards’ for buying into civilizations supposed to occur in the afterlife. And the addition of wheat to the equation — originally as a fast food substitute for a starving nation — only complicated matters. Wheat contains phytochemicals that act as a mildly addictive narcotic.
Suffer? Yes. But bread will sustain ye.
Approaching an Imaginary Cliff
Here’s the cycle. The people with hoarded supplies would enslave another set of people (and/or animals). They would coerce these workers to build mighty cities, the gems of those times. They would maintain it for as long as possible. But there would always be a tipping point. Vital resources would run thin or run out.
Collapse or Revolution. Those were the options. Either the population abandoned the center or the poor took the place of the kings. And then put in place a story as to why those “divinely appointed rulers” lost the favor of the gods and they, the oppressed, gained it. Faith existed, in organized form, to support the structure and keep it glued together when it was at its most fragile.
To question this structure was the province of wealthy men or isolated enclaves. Each set of thinkers trying to take apart what went wrong, but also dealing with the fact that enough generations had passed that they could not recollect any other way of life. And when civilization expanded, when it encountered other life, it remembered the abuse that founded it and treated other cultures as enemy.
There was only one enemy civilization could not overcome over time: itself.
For thousands of year, limited literacy saved this social construct. People could complain that their lives were better in the past… or worse. There was nothing to contradict that. Life seemed stable over history and the records of the rich mimicked that. Then, something changed. Something profound and unnervingly altering.
Welcome to the Literate Age
The printing press.
Writing is a form of art interpretation. It takes simple lines and curves, tells you what meaning to ascribe to them, and then creates complex combinations for richer interpretation. In order to understand writing, you must hallucinate those meanings in a very specific, linear fashion. Which means you have to engage that storied time-filled landscape known as the mind.
When technological issues limited exposure to writing, that was fine. Most people lived as they always lived. However, inventions like the Gutenberg press made the ability to quickly mass produce literature available to the public. It allowed a person to spread and idea in an intact and unchanged form to a vast audience.
Think of this way. You want to tell a story. You tell your ten friends one bright and brilliant night. Hells, let’s say you tell an audience of a few hundred. Once finished, they go tell their friends but by this point things change. Someone will get a word wrong or will paraphrase a sentence. Almost immediately, your narrative will start to change.
Or, one night, you hand out your book to a hundred friends. They then hand that book out to their friends. The message stays the same, regardless of who owns it. While people may disagree about interpretation, they can sit down with the same book and the same words and haggle it out. That’s the power of writing. To turn anything into an academic exercise.
People stop focusing on the world around them and on the art instead. Because it’s there. It’s permanent. It will not change.
So you might be wondering why that’s important.
A Minor Hiccup in the Works
The brain interprets things out of the range of the immediate senses. The landscape unfolds outside of realtime. That’s a powerful tool. But no matter how powerful, the body interprets this sensation as very real and very immediate.
To state it a different way, the body will not distinguish between fact and fiction. It will react to a threat presented on a piece of paper as thoroughly as it will to an animal trying to gnaw your face off. Again, with limited exposure, this is not really a problem and can be very entertaining.
But picture Martin Luther nailing up those proclamations criticizing the Church on all those doors. Offering Bibles that people can read every day, all day, if they want. People began to discover that the ones who were in charge did not have the answers they relied on. They began to realize that all of the promises made by the elite were just empty vacuous stories.
This novel communication technology–the mass production of words– led to an equally revolutionary schism. No longer could people rely on faith to provide the answers they needed. They could see the ‘truth’ in black and white right in front of them. So, in a fit of what can–at best–be considered insanity, they adopted a dialectical view of the world. There was Faith(tm) which requires that a lack of absence in the physical world to ‘prove its divinity’.
And there was Science(tm)
Observation is a fact of human cultures. Science is a fraction of that. It’s observing a repeated phenomena, reducing it down to its components, and then figuring out a way to replicable it reliably. This works very well in a number of circumstances. In others, though…
You can’t easily take apart a holistic, multi-connective system. Unique or sporadic circumstances aren’t easy to classify. And some things refuse to be dissected. Previous human cultures handled this by classifying things according to relationship, which played upon humans naturally reacting to a pattern of behavior rather than a simple physical makeup.
However, this pattern of relationships broke with agriculture and then further damaged by using faith in unseen things to support a harmful status quo. The men of science, observing what these broken men of faith had done, overall rejected the unseen. And this? This led to psychosis. This lead to industrialization.
If you don’t care about something that you’re interacting with, it’s very easy to abuse it. This started with farming but, by disregarding faith entirely, it swiftly turned other humans into parts in an elegant and ever consuming machine. It invited the idea that sentience — with its tendency to get stuck in false narratives — overcomes anything.
It created a psychosis that it could run the world like little gods. Except these gods would be flesh and blood, replicable, and understandable.
It’s hard for most people to understand but before 1400 A.D. the vast majority of the world existed as it always did. Small cultures dealing with their landscape intimately and adoringly. But with science, in just under a few dozen generations, the entire world drowns under a vicious assault that cripples its ability to maintain life as we know it.
And the rough part is that even as science kills everything, equally it believes it can fix everything… solve everything. It looks at the wonders built out of the wreck of the natural world and basks in an artificial glow doomed to fade. Civilization even knows will fade, even as it marches onward.
The Myth of Progress
The strength in relationships is the desire to maintain those connections as a healthy and immediate part of life. Strong cultures emphasize the normal cycles that one observes, highlighting places where action is desired, even necessary.
Remove that component and everything transforms into a cost-benefit. An idea of whether this helps you enough to be worth the effort.This analysis leads to the idea of trying to figure out what’s worth it and why. And that leads to the thought that each rise will be for the better (since it doesn’t have to be recipricol). And from that? The myth of progress.
Progress is the dream of a goal without ends. That somehow mankind has been heading somewhere from its inception and that every movement civilized culture adds to that progression. It’s seductive because you can show direct physical results, but it’s also as false as the narrative that you have to wait for heaven for it to all work out okay.
A Matter of Housing
Picture two different styles of homes. One is a tule hut. The reeds come from a nearby river. The people make the frame from willow, also common, and herbs, like sage and rosemary, hang from its frame. A leather-skin soaked in oil to be waterproof acts as a door (if there is one). It’s small, like a medium-sized tent. Airconditioning comes when, in the sun, the tule dries out opening spaces that the wind can come through. Rain conditioning happens because the reeds will swell up with moisture, forming a seal. The herbs ensure that insect infestation in minimum and the home smells nice.
Contrast that to a civilized home. Treated wood framework to protect against infestion, insulation to lock in temperature, followed by stone and paint. Temperature is controlled by an external unit that requires specialized fluids to cool and fossil fuels to heat. This in turn is powered by some distant fuel plant or, in a “better” case, panels manufactured elsewhere (with the waste discarded elsewhere, too) and put on the roof to harness sunlight.
The first type of house lasts a year and is instantly replaceable with easily found items. The second requires an intense infrastructure, may last a century (if you’re lucky) but inevitably will fall into refuse you must take care of or it will poison the landscape.
It’s becomes pretty obvious, very quickly, that most of the technologies civilization revolves around are deeply mal-adaptive, no matter how useful they might appear in the moment. They are tolerated because they, in the moment, appear to validate the myth of progress. A steel hammer is, on its surface, vastly superior to a stone hammer. But if you factor in the infrastructure needed to produce that hammer, the cost/benefit becomes wildly skewed and not in the favor of cilization.
The saddest victim of all this is faith. Originally, faith was indistinguishable from science. It expressed the idea that some situations were too complex to fully grasp. That, in those situations, you had to have confidence in the concept that the situation would resolve itself even though you might not understand the whole. This becomes very relevant when a volcano on the other side of the planet that you will never experience directly and never see suddenly affects your climate.
The oldest records of faith represent the best-case, time-tested stories about people in a place thriving. They are an elegant, robust expression of psychology, sociology and the natural sciences (especially botany, zoology, medicine, and physics). Care is taken to see that the legends are poetic so that they engage the mind’s need to recognize patterns. And the legends are mnemonic as well. They are matched to local landmarks that are extremely resilient, so that generation after generation can use that landmark as the placemarker for a set of relevant stories. Rather than limiting themselves to one art form (writing), the oldest cultures of man made their landscape an artistic and encyclopedic wonder.
Civilized cultures broke that cycle, but literacy made it so much worse. Faith was redefined as something wholly imaginable. If you could “prove it”, it wasn’t faith, which is diametrically opposed to the oldest definitions of faith. Let’s take a big one:
“What Happens to You After You Die?”
A number of cultures (not all; there is no pan-culture) rooted their beliefs in two things.
First, you know that bodies recycle into something different. How? When you’ve eaten dinner, you do not become your dinner; your dinner is broken down and becomes you. Second, they knew that ‘consciousness’ is a pattern of behaviors. If you see that pattern of behaviors again–in the landscape or in a relative or in a descendant–you can reasonably reflect that this is the pattern you call “you” surging up again, even temporarily. If you need an example, think about that smell that reminds you of your grandmother’s cooking or that feeling that she’s providing comfort in a difficult time. These are not experientially different than the original experiences, though they are physically different.
In contrast, the most modern religions say that if you are a good person, a desert god who comes from one specific part of the world will judge you and if you like his son your entire essence will be lifted to some other plane of existence to tell that desert god how great he is forever. There is no way to verify that save by examining line art that makes you hallucinate.
Even Moses’ recorded journey to get the Ten Commandments made more sense. He was trying to figure out a way to codify his culture after his people had been enslaved. So, he removed himself from society to fast and pray, took a hallucinogen to knock his brain loose to get a different viewpoint (a combination of acacia bush and the peganum harmala bush, if you must know), and came back saying “The Universe gifted me with a bunch of good rules. We’re going with this.”
Neopagans used to embrace this idea that if there wasn’t one true religion, then all religions are true. But that’s, unfortunately, a fallacy. Religions based on imagination must, by definition, be examined carefully and weighed against the idea that they might be a dangerous abberation that can cause harm to many, many people.
A Dangerous Time
We now exist at a terrifying crossroads, where most of the civilized population has discarded observation for a numb psychosis or embraced a delusional modality of faith divorced from any reason. And this has led to a situation where the technologies born from it are poisoning the very substances which sustain us. There will be a reckoning — no avoiding that now — but the end of humanity-as-civilization has not yet been fully written.