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