Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Recent readings: and Derrick Jensen

This post is about my thoughts in recent months and what's been influencing them. Two sources have radically changed my perspective this year: the website and anarcho-primitivist author Derrick Jensen.

Anthropik is a tribe forming to exit civilization. They have four members now, and their plan is to make enough money in the current system to pay for workshops and classes for foraging and hunter/gatherer skills and to purchase land adjacent to national/state forest. They'll be well situated to use their land as a socially accepted base for living off of the land in the forest, and to melt into the forest when they're ready and/or when civilization crashes.

It sounds crazy to most of us who've grown up in this culture of civilization, but it's actually an incredibly logical and well thought-out plan built on an equally logical and well thought-out analysis of the nature of civilizations and their collapses. Applying the analysis to our current civilization, the tribe predicts collapse to become obvious by 02012-02015 and in full progression by 02020, whether the proximate cause is resource depletion, global climate chaos, mass extinction, or a combination of these and other factors.

The primary writer on the site is Jason Godesky, who combines a strong background in anthropology with computer skills and technical knowledge. The tenor of the site takes the writings of Daniel Quinn as a starting point of sorts--Quinn's basic points of civilization and agriculture being very recent constructs in human history (having begun a mere 10,000 years ago), with a much longer history of successful tribal living with hunting and gathering as the subsistence method (millions of years). Quinn is where Godesky got started years ago questioning our cultural mom gave me Quinn's Ishmael in high school and I remember liking it but it apparently didn't leave much of an impression then. I got a lot more out of Quinn when I ready The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization last year. Godesky takes a rigorous, scholarly approach to further explore the subject matter covered by Quinn, pulling together many sources of anthropological research and studies and theories of the collapse of civilizations.

The discussions following up on posts by Anthropik tribe members are amazingly flame- and troll-free, intellectual and serious and a joy to read. It took me probably tens of hours to work through the site including some (but by no means even a majority) of the links to further resources. I've gotten some great pointers to books and subjects to pursue further.

Derrick Jensen has written books on a variety of subjects--the nature of hate, teaching and the education system, technology, communication with nonhumans, the logging industry, and more--but all the books are very much about civilization. He takes an honest, painful look at what our civilization costs the planet and its inhabitants--nonhuman and human, those obviously displaced and oppressed and those getting along relatively well. It's pretty grim, and Jensen is unapologetically anti-civilization, to the point that his latest books, Endgame Volumes I and II, in part discuss how to bring civilization down. Even ignoring the subject matter, his writing is brilliant and a true pleasure to read. I began by checking out one of his books from the library because I'd heard so many good things about him; once I read the first one I put holds on all the rest of his work.

Some of the concepts and radical changes in my thinking due to reading anthropik and Jensen:

  • The Paleodiet: Based on the fact that we evolved for millions of years eating a diet of meat, vegetables, fruits, tubers, and berries and few or no grains, the diet eschews the grains which make us sick--our bodies are not adapted to them since they're such a recent introduction via agriculture. I'm experimenting with my diet, having sharply reduced my grain intake, am eating meat (local and organic) again after a few years of vegetarianism, and eating a lot more vegetables (a full meal's worth of salad every day now for several days--harvested from our own garden as a fresh and nutritious bonus!)

  • Agriculture is inherently doomed: From the first successful experiments with agriculture 10,000 years ago, we were practically doomed to the path we've since followed. Agriculture is the original escalating arms race; any culture which began farming and successfully worked around existing biological limits to its growth was able to absorb its neighboring cultures, unless they adopted agriculture themselves. Similarly, once a culture is practicing agriculture, it must intensify and expand the area it brings under cultivation as much as possible. If it slacks off, a neighboring culture will eventually take advantage of available opportunities and become the dominant. Also, the result of agriculture is desert and ruined lands, bringing another constant need for expansion. Without a major disruption to short-circuit the escalation (such as climate change altering the conditions necessary for successful cultivation), the system will proceed to an inevitable endpoint of consuming everything available before collapsing. This means that any post-crash strategy reliant on agriculture, even if possible in the short term, will also be doomed in the long term to the same pattern of required growth and ultimate collapse.

  • Permaculture may be flawed as well: Permaculture may not be a panacea for a permanent sustainable culture. Permaculture is a form of horticulture, and horticultural systems have only been around about as long as agriculture. Obviously agriculture is more destructive than horticulture, but that's no guarantee that in the long run horticulture won't lead to the same end. Possibly a culture starting with permaculture which decides to abandon some of the basic ethics and instead simply apply permaculture "tricks" to intensify production could overwhelm neighbors carefully safeguarding the fertility of their land, leading to another cycle of short-term exploitation of land with the need to constantly take over new areas. Fortunately, permaculture is capped at a lower level of output potential, so cultures probably wouldn't be able to reach the same levels of intensity as with agriculture and the expansion and collapse influence would be diminished and never again reach anywhere near global proportions. Another drawback to permaculture is that horticultural systems may be dependent on some of the same climatic conditions as agriculture and thus be vulnerable enough to climate change or other disturbances to collapse, leaving only tried and true hunting and gathering as a viable mode of sustenance. So permaculture may well be a good stepping stone as we decline from current industrial civilization to something more sustainable, but it might not be adequate as a final state of collapse.

  • More nuanced understanding of collapse: Anthropik's analysis of the inevitability of collapse and its arguments for why it'll happen sooner rather than later makes a lot of sense and has greatly augmented my understanding of what sort of future we might be seeing as a result of Peak Oil. Much of it is comforting: Anthropik and Jensen have very convincing arguments as to how bad civilization is for us, and Anthropik details the advantages of a hunter/gatherer existence. Further, my current working definition of collapse (the same used by Anthropik I think, and the same used by Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies) is simply a reduction in complexity of a society. It doesn't have to mean starvation and rioting in the streets. In fact, the relocalization movement and much of the direction of the Peak Oil community is pushing voluntary collapse: scaling back the US empire, taking power back to localities instead of the feds, producing goods and services locally rather than via globalized trade, voluntary simplicity, and having more people growing their own food and being self-sufficient instead of employed as one of a million categories of specialized cogs in industrial civilization, are all reductions in complexity and thus elements of a society in collapse. Also, historically, civilizations have taken decades to collapse, again meaning that a decline doesn't have to be bloody and terrifying. But it does get scary when the collapse is neither gradual nor voluntary, and my immediate research is into what collapse has looked like in past societies and whether our own is likely to be graceful or ugly. (Anthropik fully believes it'll be worst-case scenario with abrupt decline into violence, starvation, and cannibalism in the cities.)

  • Believing civilization needs to crash: I'm now convinced that civilization is not only inevitably doomed to collapse, but that the sooner it happens, the better. The atrocities, daily atrocities, carried out to continue its growth (which is a requirement; there's no way to have a static civilization), are so horrifying that nothing can justify civilization's continued existence. There's also no way that civilization can voluntarily change itself into something sustainable; that would require multilateral agreements across the board of everyone on the planet not to continue down the current path; if any small group took advantage of everyone else's self-crippling that group would again kick off the whole escalating cycle. Further, the longer civilization drags itself on, the larger our population grows and the more we trash our support bases, thus the harder the crash will be. What I'm not sure of yet is whether I want to play an active role in bringing civilization down or whether my focus will continue to be on preparations at a personal and community level.

  • Questioning my plan to see it through in the city: Reading anthropik has made me much less confident about my prior attitude of sticking it out in Portland as Peak Oil hits, helping as many people as I can through the chaos. (The disappointing experience with the Peak Oil prep community at PPI probably factors in as well, since the integration challenges there make me wonder just how possible it is for people of our culture to come together to address the problems we'll be facing soon.) Anthropik's approach of preparing to become hunter/gatherers holds enormous emotional appeal for me, and almost as much intellectual appeal. Along with my readings of Derrick Jensen's work, I've started wondering what the point is of keeping myself mired in a culture which is so intensely destructive, exploitative, and miserable--will I really be able to change anything or help anyone? Or is it best to get out of the way as civilization crumbles and turns in on itself, working with whomever else wants to get out to forge a new culture? Even if I don't go the full-blown hunter/gatherer route, a multi-acre permaculture homestead in a rural area, adjacent to public forest, is very attractive, giving me more flexibility than I have here. Community, of course, will still be crucial.

  • Foraging for food: This is a natural extension of the permaculture path I was already travelling, but learning how to forage has taken on a new priority. Being able to identify useful plants for edible and medicinal uses, know how to use them, and actually be using them now is vital if I do ever want to exit civilization, in which case these skills will be even more important than knowing how to grow my own food in an annual vegetable garden or a permaculture food production system. It's also a fascinating realm in and of itself--I bet I could feed myself entirely on food foraged within the city if I just had the knowledge (so long as not too many other people get the same idea, of course), and I'm already enjoying figuring plants out bit by bit.


greenInk said...

Hey, great post. I'm with ya all the way, trying to figure out what and how to forage, and separating myself from the machine to whatever extent possible, short of taking a dirt nap, y'know?

Anyway, thought you might be interested to know that Derrick Jensen is going to be here in Eugene June 11, at Sam Bond's Garage (that's a bar, not some guy's workshop) as a benefit for Jeff Luers and victims of the Green Scare.

mjolsen said...

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of permaculture and of the role of horticulture here. See my blog at
The relevant quote follows:

"One of Bill Mollison’s key insights occurred when he was taken through tropical jungle tribal territory by some native hunter-gatherers. When he began the trip, what he saw was “the jungle” or “the wilderness”. But as his hosts pointed out the gathering grounds of plant after plant he slowly realized that to these people the area was not a “wilderness” at all. They knew exactly where and when each useful food or medicine plant was to be found. To them, this “wilderness” was an enormous garden. They did “intervene” by deliberately encouraging the spread of useful plants and discouraging harmful ones. He understood that these people carefully maintained their garden territory."

This was also true of the Native American cultures -- they didn't live in 'the woods, forest, or wilderness' but in a semi-wild garden that they tended with great wisdom.


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Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thanks.

White Indian said...

Godesky does mention wars for dwindling resources in his Thesis #28, but doesn't address making it through a Nuclear War.

If you're going to stay in the Northern Hemisphere, you had better get Nuclear War Survival Skills.