Posted by: terrapraeta | November 6, 2009

Sustainable Civilization?

Proclaim eternal victory
Come on and change the course of history
And pull us through
And pull us through

And this is the end, the end
This is the end
Of the world

Muse, Apocalypse Please

I had a really interesting discussion with a new friend while I was traveling. In fact, you could go so far as to call it a debate in that we both put forth conflicting views and we tried very hard to make the other see our point. But it was still a useful discussion because we were both willing to actually listen to the other whereas often, in debate, the only listening that goes on involves looking for points to dispute.

What finally emerged in the discussion was a recognition that we had completely different understandings of a few basic terms. Looking around the ‘net today, I find that he is not alone in this basic, semantic, misinterpretation. So I want to start today by introducing some terms with the standard definition and explication of those terms.

Civilization: A Society using agriculture as its primary form of sustenance, characterized by city development (city: a population center exceeding 5000 residents), social stratification and state level political control, literacy, and extensive division of labor.

Subsistence: The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimal level. (from wikipedia)

Sustainable: Resource usage below replenishment rate.

Agriculture: Food production beyond the level of diminishing returns (ie more total energy is invested in production than is produced)

Horticulture: Food production below the level of diminishing returns (ie less total energy is invested in production than is produced)

Culture: The sum total of ideas, (objects and technologies) produced by a society.

Over the course of our discussion, it became clear that my friend was using “civilization” in place of culture and “agriculture” in place of subsistence. This led to a lot of miscommunications between us and for a time he refused to accept that it mattered what terms he used. He called it simple semantics until finally I pointed out to him that it was like he was talking to an astronomer about the moons in our solar system and insisting on calling them planets. When he finally stopped and thought about it, we could move beyond the semantics and talk effectively. Unfortunately, that recognition came near the end of our discussion, but perhaps that was better as it gave him time to reconcile this idea in his head. Hopefully it will be useful for him later on.

In any case, today I did a google search, looking for other bloggers discussing collapse, sustainability, post-industrial culture and so forth…. and found a hundred (give or take) links discussing “Sustainable Civilization.” Hmmm… so my friend in Madison is not alone.

Sustainable Civilization is a classic oxymoron. It is an impossibility and anyone that tells you differently is, most likely, unaware of the nature of civilization and/or conflating the term with culture. Less often, they’re trying to sell you something as useful as the Brooklyn Bridge. It has become a greenwashing term, designed to convince people that everything will be just fine. But I have news… everything is not going to be “just fine.”


We have global warming, which could, any time now, shut down the Atlantic Conveyor. The last time that happened, European agriculture failed, due to total inconsistency in weather patterns. If it happens again, global weather patterns could cause crop failures world wide – after all, world wide there are only three or four genera of plants that provide the vast majority of our food. And those genera are extremely susceptible to failure.

We have the end of oil upon us. Without oil we have, once again, global crop failures as most of our agriculture is dependent upon chemical fertilizers and automated equipment. And even if the crops do not fail, there is a question of how to get the food to the people as transportation infrastructure crumbles. And if transportation does not fail, who will be able to afford food with the increasing cost of oil?

We have ecological collapse. If neither global warming nor oil dependency is enough to bring us to our knees, then there is the question of ecological devastation. Ask yourself: can we, as a species, survive the total destruction of ocean life? The majority of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from the same ocean flora that is currently collapsing around us. The rest comes from tropical forests that are also being gradually destroyed. We may be able to survive without the trees themselves, but can we survive without the oxygen they create?

I could go on, but I am not really trying to bring anybody down. The crises are daunting and overwhelming and individually we can do nothing to help. But that is not the point that I am trying to make here. The point is that there is a very real opportunity here.

Civilization is inherently unsustainable. It cannot continue to grow and therefore it will inevitably collapse. The crises are big enough and near enough that it cannot survive much longer. So what does that mean for us, individual people? It means that while many people are going to die – because they can not or will not accept that our way of life is killing us – many other people are going to have the opportunity to chose to live a different way. A better way. One of the ten thousand ways.

I chose a different way. How about you?

** For a complete, well documented and concise discussion of all of these terms and how they fit together systemically, see The Thirty Theses



  1. So… what is the point of defining ag and horti this way? It’s not how these two ways of growing food are generally understood… and I read Jason and I still don’t get it. ?

  2. Hey —

    These are the standard, anthropological definitions of the terms…. and far more useful for distinguishing different methods of cultivation than any non-anthropological definitions.


  3. I found a number of athro definitions. Here is one: Ag — Nonindustrial systems of plant cultivation characterized by continuous and intensive use of land and labor. Horti — Nonindustrial system of plant cultivation in which plots lie fallow for varying lengths of time.

    Some anthros differentiate plow vs pre-plow. Some talk more about intensification.

    How is it useful to differentiate via ROI (in energy terms)?

  4. Hey —

    Oh sure… in some cases anthropologists will try to define based on specific technologies or strategies… but that tends to muddy rather than clarify. Whereas by talking about the systemic properties you are first — recognizing that these *are* systems with inherent characteristics, and second, identifying a specific inherant characteristic that clearly defines the differences between the systems.

    In other words, horticulture is *always* sustainable, whether one is using digging sticks, hoes or plows… slash and burn, fallow or permaculture fortification, growing corn or tomatoes or yams…. and, likewise, agriculture is *always* unsustainable.

    If you conflate the two terms, especially when discussing specifically sustainable practices, how are you ever to effectively communicate?

    (Also, specific to this discussion… agriculture is specifically related to civilization, another system inherently unsustainable… whereas horticulture can be and has been used by all manner of societies short of industrial civilization….)


  5. I think I am seeing the systemic part that I was not seeing before. I shall mull. Thank you.

  6. I am now understanding the historical aspect of this, and why anthros would differentiate horti as cultivation first developed.

    Still though, rereading anthropik, Jason says this: “By transforming the living world into nothing more than a unit of production, agriculture trains us to see all cultivation not in terms of ecological relationship, but as an economic equation of energy in and energy out.” So if we differentiate based on energy in and out… it seems this contradicts his own thinking.

    Though Ish people generally have a more systemic view of things, which is good, they tend to want to pain ag all black, and that may not actually be what goes on in the world. They hang all the evils of cultivation on ag, and keep the good things for horti…

  7. Hi Vera

    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you… busy week 🙂

    I’m not sure when/where Jason wrote what you quoted… my first thought… Jason began his writings pursuing the intellectual aspect of all this. He devoted a lot of time and effort into really understanding, documenting, cross referencing and creating, basically, a thesis work out of his efforts. But as time has passed, he has been moving more and more into feeling his way toward something different. This quote sounds like part of that process.

    So my response would be that he’s right… ag/civ/industrial society teaches us to think in terms of control, in terms of bare numbers, in terms of pure energy instead of relationship. And relationship is what we absolutely need if we are to stop destroying the living world. But if you are going to sit down and have a discussion with another person that does think in those terms, then a thorough understanding of the system and how the terms relate is critical.

    All ag is black. Sorry. But the more I learn, the more I realize that. I mean… a lot of people these days glorify the family farmers of the 19th and 20th centuries, thinking that those techniques are just fine. Yet, it was the family farms that created the great american dust bowl of the 1940’s. So how is that really any better?


  8. It’s good to hear Jason is still working stuff out. I’ve been wondering how things are with him… anthropik is only partly functional nowadays, and his heart does not seem to be in Toby’s people blog.

    Question for ya: say you come across someone who is farming really well. Like Polyface farm (
    or better yet. Do you then say… well, that’s not ag, that’s horticulture?

  9. Hey vera —

    Yes, Jason is still very much doing things… he has put out a couple of vids recently that I have found really inspiring… I’ll track down the links for you…. his focus has changed to working on The fifth World and his personal exploration of the world. I think it has been really good for him…

    As to polyface… they are doing some wonderful things and I salute that… but no, I would not call them “horticulture” at this point. They are still doing ag, but they are exploring possibilities, and hopefully, in time, they will get to the point that what they are doing IS fully sustainable. And by that point, hopefully we will no longer even be discussing diminishing returns 😉


  10. Follow up…

    Did you see this one:

    And then more recently:

  11. So are you saying that IF Polyface Farm was sustainable, you would call them horticulture?
    Not a trap question, I am trying to see if this naming thing works for me.

    Thanks for the vids! Looking forward to checking them out.

    • Sustainable ag = horti?

  12. Hey —

    I’m saying that IF Polyface was sustainable, they would BE horticultural…. in other words, if you itemized all of the things they were doing and how they were doing them, you would find that the only label you could put on them would be horticulture.

    Make sense?


  13. […] agriculture Leave a Comment  How does one tell the difference between bad ag and good ag? Some would say all ag is bad. They contrast it with horticulture, citing specialist anthropological definitions. I am inclined to […]

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