Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beyond Newspeak. What is “Civilization”? What is “Agriculture”?

"Wetiko" by: Liana Buszka

George Orwell noticed the particular adeptness of Western institutions of power at eviscerating language. He coined the term “Newspeak” in his classic dystopian novel 1984 as the name of a modified, narrowed, ideologically-twisted form of English. The purpose was simple: eliminate language as a tool for critical thought. In his parable, a tyrannical government intentionally molded the language by inverting meanings, simplifying spellings to erase etymology, and so forth. It was part of a broader campaign of mass brainwashing, which also included brazenly ahistorical reporting in the rigidly controlled news media so that the people would always support the latest war with little to no memory of the constantly shifting targets and alliances. In reality, the formation of Newspeak required no conspiracy (nor did the formation of an anti-historical news media), only the combined efforts of thousands of true believers progressively warping, winnowing, and spinning our words to the point where most people literally cannot think.

Anarchy means the absence of a ruler (from the Greek “an,” meaning “without” and “arkhos,” meaning ruler), which is another way of saying the absence of coercive hierarchy. As Orwell or any other anarchist could tell you, it means lateral democracy, egalitarianism, and organized, community-wide cooperation. It means living as humans lived for the first 99% of our existence. It does not mean disorder. It does not mean violence. It does not mean reversion to the Hobbesian nightmare of “man in his natural state.” It is not, most pointedly, a synonym for chaos, itself a poorly used term in mainstream discourse. Yet anarchy has been used by as lofty a mind as William Butler Yeats, and by millions of more humdrum social pundits, as a synonym for disorder, violence, lunacy, perhaps some half-deluded fear of a frenzied Bacchanal. This was a product of corporate spin-doctoring. From the emergence of modern corporatism in the mid 1880's through WWI (later, of course, in Spain), the corporate class rightly saw the anarchist movement as its chief enemy. The corporate media consistently portrayed anarchists as bloodthirsty demons seeking to harm ordinary people. The audacity of this smear-campaign was evident to many at the time, for the country still had intact unions and granges, a vibrant independent press in twenty languages, and traditional forms of education which were quite good at teaching critical thought. It took a full generation to destroy the radical unions, to largely supplant the independent media with corporate mass media, and to implement a rigidly doctrinaire, soul-crushing public education system. It took at least another generation to radically undermine community itself with the inception of television and the suburb. In our now radically atomized, intellectually comatose, docile, infantile, consumerist society, the agents of the corporate media can be as audacious as they please, and only a few radical voices on the margins will even notice, and few will notice them.

Democracy means rule by the people. Not some people, all people. One need not even engage in analysis to know that the United States is not a democracy. We are not even really meant to believe that it is. We are meant to believe that we live in a republic, which is a different form of government, namely a representative oligarchy. I will not enumerate the many ways in which the myth of the American republic is but a thin veneer for fascism. Maybe that will be another post. Athens was not a democracy, not even in Attica itself, let alone in the fairly extensive empire beyond the homeland of Attica. Just in Attica, a third of the people were slaves. Of the remaining two thirds, half were women. Of the remaining third, fewer than 20% were land-owning adults who were thereby eligible to participate in the political process. That means that, at best, 6% of the homeland, or maybe 1% of the empire, was the citizenry. That's not democracy. That's patriarchal plutocracy, rule by rich men. It was not progress, it was propaganda. Meanwhile, most of the world at the time was still indigenous, and every one of those cultures was far more democratic than imperial, war-mongering, ecocidal Athens, many of them being true democracies.

Fascism, in the grand sweep of our language, is a neologism. It dates to 1920. It is one of those rare words whose etymology is so crystal clear, so precisely and unambiguously documented, that there is no question whatsoever about its meaning. We even know who coined the term. Benito Mussolini. We know what he coined it to mean. He said, “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, for it is the merging of state and corporate power.” It does not strictly mean Hitler, it does not just mean the official bad guys, and it certainly cannot possibly be twisted to mean Muslim extremists, though the absurd term Islamo-fascist has caught on in some circles. The only problem with Mussolini's useful and clear statement is a slight ambiguity: why call it corporatism rather than statism if it is merely the merging of state and corporate power? His choice of corporatism rather than statism reflects the deeper reality, that in contrast to the older model in which charter corporations served the state, the state would now serve the modern corporations. Need I even finish this paragraph?

Radical is a relative term, as are all political labels, though it is reflexively used in the mainstream discourse as if it were an objective reality. One can only be radical in relation to a given norm. Civilization is radically out of step with, opposed to, and destructive of the community of life. I am radically opposed to civilization. I am therefore a radical in relation to civilization. I am not a radical. I am very mainstream, middle of the road, even quite conservative in relation to the community of life. To obfuscate the reality that political positions are not absolutes but relative to existing systems of power is to make those systems of power appear as given: natural, normal, and inevitable. This is obviously very useful to those in power, and also obviously a big fat lie.

OK, enough warmup, onto the meat and potatoes. Or rather, the genocide and ecocide (the former of which is usually confused with democide and the latter of which is still, sadly, unknown as a word or concept to most civilized people). Nearly every English speaker believes s/he understands the words civilization and agriculture, just as s/he thinks s/he understands anarchy, democracy, fascism, radical and many other critically important words including history, time, nature, science, progress, religion, species, sustainability, etc. (By the way, we really could use a gender neutral third person singular pronoun, couldn't we? But I refuse to use “they” in that manner.) Without a functioning language, we cannot engage in critical thought. So we must seek to reconstruct language even as we engage in the discourse that promises to decolonize our minds, the necessary precursor of meaningful, and desperately needed, action.

Agriculture really did begin about 10,000 years ago, and its adoption is rightly called the Agricultural Revolution. It was the truest revolution in history, and the most destructive. Even the Industrial Revolution was less genuinely revolutionary. Really, it intensified and vastly accelerated the processes that had been in play since the dawning of agriculture. More on this another time. So, let's start by being clear about what agriculture is not. It is not sticking seeds in the ground. Any civilized person who explicitly or implicitly assumes that indigenous people did not know that plants grow from seeds and that there are advantages to having certain plants grow in certain places is, probably unwittingly, engaging in racist thinking. Indigenous people knew and know infinitely more about the processes of life and the interaction of different human and non-human communities that comprise ecosystems than the civilized. Yes, they knew and know where babies come from, and where plants come from. Yes, they planted seeds, and still do. Other animals do this, too. Squirrels plant acorns that will grow into oaks that will feed and house their descendants, many generations down the line. Whether or not this is done with intention is another question, and probably an unanswerable one unless we can get squirrels to join the conversation (I believe we can, though obviously not in English). When a person listens to the land and hears that it is good and appropriate for certain plants to grow here or there, improving the density and diversity of life, that may be called permaculture, horticulture, agro-forestry (though the prefix is misleading), etc, but it is not agriculture. Agriculture is the large-scale monocropping of annuals. Moreover, it is the seizing of land from all its prior human and non-human inhabitants and collective owners, claiming exclusive ownership, killing or exiling every visible organism leaving nothing but bare topsoil (a condition abhorrent to the “natural order”), and planting row upon row of virtually identical annual plants. Any wild being who attempts to reenter this land is defined as a pest or weed and in the value system of agriculture, it is not only acceptable but necessary and virtuous to kill these beings, for they are trying to “steal” what is “yours.”

It should be clear, already, that agriculture is an abomination to any animist, and all indigenous people were/are animists. If you need a quick primer on animism, it is not a religion but a spiritual worldview in which the universe is imbued with spirit in its totality and in all its component parts. Spirit is immanent, not removed as in theism. Therefore, all things are actually beings, each with intrinsic value and rights, each with its/her/his own will, personality, preferences, intellect, etc. If they are to be engaged, it must be on the basis of relationship rather than exploitation. Animism promotes humility and reciprocity and is antithetical to acquisitiveness and coercion. So we need not wonder why indigenous people did not think of agriculture. We need wonder how in the world such a pathological food culture ever came into existence. I dealt with that in my first blog post here.

Agriculture, aside from being immoral and murderous, is unsustainable. Topsoil is the basis for all terrestrial life. It accumulates very slowly. It is not just “dirt.” It is a dizzyingly complex network of decayed organic matter, bacteria, fungi, insects, and burrowing animals (I am borrowing, here, from Lierre Keith). It is, as Theodore Koetke noted, the flesh of the Earth. It accumulates very slowly, by human standards, perhaps two inches per millennium in an intact forest. The accumulation is somewhat faster on a healthy prairie as more of the carbon is stored underground and less in trees and other plants. Its much slower, of course, in arid climates. Soil is protected by plants and fungi. The networks of roots and mycelia hold the soil together, so even in heavy winds and rain, the soil does not budge. Obviously, in rare, catastrophic situations, like a massive flood, giant earthquake, or glacier, the topsoil can be heavily disturbed or even stripped entirely. Thankfully, these occurrences are rare. Tilling, however, is the equivalent of one of these catastrophes repeated once (or even several times) per year. The consequences are grim. Every moderate rain shower and even fairly light winds carry away precious soil. Torrential downpours and windstorms can carry away centuries of soil in a day. This is not sustainable anywhere, though it will desertify some lands much faster than others, depending, of course, on how much soil there was to begin with, how heavy it was, and how heavy the winds and rain were. Different agricultural practices can also accelerate or decelerate the damage, including crop rotation, construction of wind-breaks, etc, but the end result is the same: wasteland. As the water table drops (an inevitable consequence of deforestation, for trees draw the water up and also release water into the atmosphere, creating more rain), irrigation can be implemented to continue the process of destroying the land utterly (oh, I mean nobly feeding scores of hungry humans... more on that later). Trace mineral salts in the river water accumulate in the soil as plants reject them, and without sufficient rain (if there were sufficient rain, after all, irrigation would be unnecessary), the salts are not washed away. The result is salinized soil. Remember why the Romans dumped salt all over Carthage after the Punic Wars? So nothing would ever grow there again. This is the coup de grace in agriculture's war on life. It not only creates a desert but a salinized desert which will not likely recover for millions of years.

OK, so agriculture is unsustainable. It is a war on life. It was almost certainly a long, slow, tragic mistake (see my earlier blog post “Why Civilization?”). It is also a really bad idea just in terms of nutrition. The staple foods of agricultural peoples are grains and tubers, nutrient poor but energy dense foods comprised mostly of starch. In the case of grains, especially, there are also loads of anti-nutrients to contend with, natural chemical defense mechanisms for the seeds that undermine our bodies' ability to absorb and utilize crucial vitamins and minerals, leading to stunted growth and deformity in people who rely too heavily on such foods. With the onset of the Agricultural Revolution, the farming people grew, on average, to adult heights five or six inches shorter than their indigenous ancestors. Where their indigenous ancestors had, on average, less than one cavity per person per lifetime, the farmers had seven to eight (and this was long before refined sugar). Maternal and infant mortality sky-rocketed. Cancer, previously almost non-existent, became a major killer. Likewise diabetes, heart disease, stroke, asthma, and a host of other “diseases of civilization” (and, no, they're not just called that by radicals). Simply put, humans did not evolve to eat the farmer's diet. Our evolutionary ancestors ate very few grains and legumes, and relatively few tubers, at least as a proportion of total calories. They ate a vastly more diverse diet, relying heavily on dozens to hundreds of different species, while agriculturalists typically get most of their calories from a single species, and the overwhelming majority from maybe five or six. Our indigenous ancestors (this also applies to the few remaining indigenous cultures) always ate a great deal of wild meat, including organ meat. This meat was sometimes fermented. They usually ate ripe fruits in season, a wide range of nuts and plants (often soaked or fermented), and mushrooms. Only coconut-eating indigenous cultures got the majority of their calories from plants, and this was mostly in the form of coconut oil, the most saturated oil in nature. In those cultures, fish was a close second. All other indigenous cultures got most of their calories from animals, invariably preferring foods rich in saturated fat. Relatively little of the fat in the various indigenous diets was polyunsaturated and relatively few of the total calories were from carbohydrates. The nutrient density of such a diet is extremely high. The agricultural diet is poor in fat, most of the fat is polyunsaturated, the bulk of the calories are carbohydrates, and the nutrient density is poor. Hence, agricultural people were and are often well-fed but malnourished, short and portly, prone to deformity, disease, and rotten teeth. At worst, they are much more susceptible to famine, due to the fundamental unsustainability of their food culture, their gross overpopulation, and their overwhelming reliance on one or, at best, a few species.

So agriculture is bad for us, in addition to being unsustainable, immoral, and, historically, a big mistake. Hopefully, you're starting to find yourself more interested in ending agriculture than attempting to reform it, though you may still have a few hesitations, some of which will have to wait for another post (like, “OK, but how in the world can we feed seven billion people without grain?”). Now we begin to segue toward the question of civilization. Agriculture is the necessary precursor of civilization. Agriculture, being abhorrent to indigenous people, developed with a concomitant value system which remains with us (the civilized) to this day. No longer was the world comprised of subjects with whom to commune but now objects to exploit (I am consciously paraphrasing the brilliant Thomas Berry). No longer did spirit inhabit and animate the myriad beings in this universe. They were now just things, which humans, unique in the physical world in our possession of souls, could not only exploit at will but were divinely commanded to do so. Agriculture also gave us gods and, especially, God. Where indigenous people saw and see the Earth as a benevolent and generous (and often stern) mother, the agriculturalists, at war with the Earth mother, turned to supernatural powers beyond the physical realm to aid them in their battle. These gods were originally nature spirits who became increasingly abstracted from their physical origins. Early agriculturalists, still closer to their indigenous-animist roots, often worshipped goddesses over gods, but with the prevailing trend toward patriarchy, the gods always won out. The Germanic tribes, still foraging and hunting for much of their food, growing and raising some more, steadfastly avoiding the formation of population centers larger than small villages, continued to worship in the forest and continued to regard trees as divine. The Egyptians, relatively early and ardent agriculturalists and famed champions of civilization, sent their spirits off to the sky, or deep underground. The Greeks mirrored this, but with an astonishing innovation: suddenly, all the gods were in strictly human form, revealing the Greeks' extreme anthropocentrism. Their gods lived in various far off places, but mostly on top of a very large mountain. The Romans would send their gods to the other planets of the solar system, and the inheritors of the Abrahamic tradition sent their God and his angels (I promise another post on this, the insanity of the term monotheism) further still, into the Heaven beyond the firmament. As the alienation between classes, individuals, and especially between humans and the (“natural”) world became greater, and as hierarchies became more stratified and abusive on Earth, so too did the alienation of spirit increase along with the degree of divine autocracy.

In addition to its extreme anthropocentrism, objectification, and increasingly totalitarian theism, agriculture proved to give rise to some other interesting values and concomitant institutions. Because agriculture on fresh soil produces a glut of food in the short-term, and because that food is storable over years, certain individuals, notable only for their ruthlessness, seized control of the surplus. In indigenous villages, all the homes are about the same size. In the earliest agricultural societies, there is always one very big house, adjoining the grain silo (this is straight from Richard Manning). Grain becomes the prototypical commodity, indeed the prototypical currency, as it is taxed, it is fungible, and it is used by the authorities how and when they see fit, always as a tool of social control. Agriculture gives rise to monetarism and commodification.

Since yields on given parcels of agricultural land tend to decrease, due to nutrient exhaustion, erosion, decreasing precipitation, falling water tables, and progressive salinization, previously unfarmed land would continually have to be appropriated even to sustain a stable population. But agriculture demands a growing population. This is a product of the food surplus, the need for more laborers in individual family units to maximize their yields and thereby advance in the emergent socio-economic hierarchy, and the need for soldiers and slaves to do the really dirty work of empire. So the ruling class spawns a subset of itself dedicated to indoctrination, namely a priestly class (my own surname, Levi, indicates my lineage from the Hebrew priestly class, of which there was a further subset of high priests, the Kohenim). These priests preach that the gods, or God, want/s to see people breed as quickly as possible. This is doable, in the short-term, given the expanding food supply, and it is desirable, in a limited sense, for the ruling class as they will have more slaves and soldiers and a larger tax-base. So agriculture values growth, in terms of population and in terms of economic production.

Indigenous economies are gift economies. People individually possess little or nothing. Land ownership is completely abhorrent. People routinely and ritually exchange gifts, but the rule is that the gifts must either be consumed (so an animal must be eaten, usually in a communal feast) or passed along endlessly (as in a tobacco pipe). This is to prevent hoarding, which is, rightly, seen as a root of acquisitiveness and coercion. Hence, “Indian-givers” who demanded back the gifts they'd given to the whites when they found the whites hoarding them. In agricultural societies, the Earth has no value in its “natural” state. There is no intrinsic value to great herds of bison, towering old growth forests, or shoals so thick with cod they could capsize a small boat. In agricultural societies, economic production is equated with exploiting, using up, and usually destroying other beings (who are, of course, rarely regarded as beings, even when they turn out to be humans). It is, as Derrick Jensen so succinctly put it, “the conversion of the living to the dead.” Actually, it's even worse than that, for death feeds new life. It's the termination of the life-cycle and the sterilization of the planet. But Jensen's phrase is catchier, and conveys the most salient information.

Now is as good a time as any to make it clear that civilization is a synonym for “agricultural society,” at least once it has reached the very early stage of city-building. In Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen defines civilization just about perfectly, so I will quote him:

If I’m going to contemplate the collapse of civilization, I need to define what it is. I looked in some dictionaries. Webster’s calls civilization “a high stage of social and cultural development.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a developed or advanced state of human society.” All the other dictionaries I checked were similarly laudatory. These definitions, no matter how broadly shared, helped me not in the slightest. They seemed to me hopelessly sloppy. After reading them, I still had no idea what the hell a civilization is: define high, developed, or advanced, please. The definitions, it struck me, are also extremely self-serving: can you imagine writers of dictionaries willingly classifying themselves as members of “a low, undeveloped, or backward state of human society”?

I suddenly remembered that all writers, including writers of dictionaries, are propagandists, and I realized that these definitions are, in fact, bite-sized chunks of propaganda, concise articulations of the arrogance that has led those who believe they are living in the most advanced—and best—culture to attempt to impose by force this way of being on all others.

I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), 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. Thus a Tolowa village five hundred years ago where I live in Tu’nes (meadow long in the Tolowa tongue), now called Crescent City, California, would not have been a city, since the Tolowa ate native salmon, clams, deer, huckleberries, and so on, and had no need to bring in food from outside. Thus, under my definition, the Tolowa, because their way of living was not characterized by the growth of city-states, would not have been civilized. On the other hand, the Aztecs were. Their social structure led inevitably to great city-states like Iztapalapa and Tenochtitlán, the latter of which was, when Europeans first encountered it, far larger than any city in Europe, with a population five times that of London or Seville. Shortly before razing Tenochtitlán and slaughtering or enslaving its inhabitants, the explorer and conquistador Hernando Cortés remarked that it was easily the most beautiful city on earth. Beautiful or not, Tenochtitlán required, as do all cities, the (often forced) importation of food and other resources. The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.

Since the population of a civilized society must grow endlessly in order to meet its divine obligations, to conquer and pacify (ethnically cleanse) an ever greater territory, to supply ever more cities, and to meet the material demands of an ever more rapacious and powerful elite, it progresses across the land like a cancer. Indigenous people are, as I noted, generally taller, stronger, healthier (and, I dare say, more clever and intelligent, not by virtue of genetics but rather culture and nutrition), yet they always fall victim to the civilized. The reasons are simple. The civilized have enormous numerical superiority. They have the advantage of being the aggressors, often attacking peaceful settlements. They have a value system that glorifies violence against “heathens.” They have metal weapons and armor, a product not so much of their ingeniousness as of their immense desire for tools of violence and oppression and total disregard for the ecological and moral consequences of mining the earth for ore and deforesting it for fuel. Increasingly, they also have epidemic diseases like smallpox, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, typhus, measles, leprosy, influenza, and a host of other plagues, all originating in settled animal husbandry. This biological warfare was not always used consciously, though it often was. Either way, it was devastating. This endless expansion, genocide, and ecocide is, aside from being the epitome of evil, obviously unsustainable on a finite planet.

Premise #1 of Derrick Jensen's Endgame (the book begins with Twenty Premises) is “Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.” It is only “especially true” for industrial civilization in that the rate of devastation is far greater. It is fully true for all civilizations. The only question is the stage at which they collapse and the legacy of destruction and suffering they leave.

Let's grow up. Let's use our words as tools for liberation rather than wear them as shackles. Let's not be content to use, or countenance the use, of “agriculture” as the noble practice of feeding people, or of “civilization” as a synonym for culture or “a really good culture.” Think twice before saying, “oh, well this is so civilized,” unless you are witnessing the BP oil spill that's murdering the Gulf of Mexico, the building of the Three Gorges Dam and consequent extinction of the Yangzi river dolphin along with much of the rest of life in that river, or the Holocaust. Those are the real manifestations of this culture. The great sociologist and Holocaust survivor Zygmunt Bauman called the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges “the most uninhibited expressions” of modern civilization. If we won't even liberate our language, how in the world can we begin to attack the megamachine that is consuming what's left of the community of life? When I say, “let's grow up,” it is not an indictment. Growing up is painful, even under the best of circumstances. In the context of late-stage industrial civilization, it entails enormous personal risk and near certain abdication of innumerable comforts and social rewards. So I say it as a rallying cry, as much to myself as anyone else. Let's grow up. The Earth can't wait another moment.


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