“The world we have created is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”—Albert Einstein
We all live inside a ten thousand year bubble, an historical aberration that we take as normal. We call this bubble the culture of civilization and we cling to it as the devil we know. Not daring to think outside this bubble, we make assessments about the nature of reality based upon bubble assumptions. What follows is a statement I am highly tempted to call “made up facts,” but maybe there is a more charitable explanation for these bald assertions. ”There has never been during known existence a system in which its human occupants were not expanding their consumption, overloading their local resources, and killing its weakest members. There has never been a time when the local niche was not full, and people were not being killed as a result.” This statement comes from an engineer, and, I believe, a disciple of Richard Dawkins. What this is, instead of the factual statement it pretends to be, is the projection of an ideology back through time with little or no regard to what actually existed on the other side of the bubble, and what is known about human pre-history.
Anatomically modern humans were in Africa for 200,000 years, and our ancestry goes back in that place for a very long time. We don’t really know all the conditions of their existence; we only know that they survived for hundreds (and even thousands) of generations. Behaviorally modern man was a survivor of the Mt. Toba eruption, and something happened to our kind to change us in this period. We developed a new creativity and imagination, along with abilities to communicate and cooperate—and these newly developed, or newly heightened, characteristics transformed us into a species that could survive not just in Africa but in every corner of the world. Our exodus out of Africa, starting some sixty thousand years ago, and continuing in waves of dispersal over a period of fifty thousand years, found Homo sapiens exploring and exploiting an array of habitats never dreamed of back in Africa. We became able generalists with a capacity to develop in many different directions, adapting to the conditions of specific environments. If success of a species is measured by ubiquity, we became a highly successful species during this time of dispersal. But then a time did come when all the available territories and niches were pretty much filled, and something had to give.
Up until this time the constraints for unchecked population growth were local and particular. In general, whatever a given land base would support, the population would grow to match it. When the population exceeded the resources available, or if social conditions became strained, a splinter group could hive off from the main group and establish itself in new territory. Until there wasn’t any new territory to expand into. This was the moment of truth, the moment of decision.
For fifty thousand years of dispersal, and for untold millennia before the great exodus, the human being was an animist, for whom the Earth was sacred, intelligent, alive, filled with spirit; and all the other creatures of the Earth were known to be kin, each with its own interiority and personhood. These people were hunters and gatherers who lived in egalitarian groups of twenty to thirty individuals, who followed the seasonal rounds of ripening and migration, usually within a known territory that they claimed as their own. They lived within the annual solar budget, off the interest of Nature’s abundance—what I call living in the Gift.
When these people got caught in the crunch of no more new territory to expand into, almost all of these bands and tribes elected to hold their ground and keep their population in check. In this way, they were able to go on living their lives in the traditional manner as they continued to live in the Gift. Their lives went on as egalitarian animists and their worldview continued to sustain them. The anthropological literature is replete with studies of just such people, though it is true that by the time we were studying indigenous people instead of simply exterminating them, their lifeways had been highly compromised by ours.
The culture of civilization was founded upon agriculture, private property, and the authoritarian social structures that accompany this new way of relating to the world. The new way of life that grew out of these cultural institutions could not be supported by Nature’s Gift, but required reverting to Theft: living off both the interest and the principal of Nature’s economy. This means stealing the lives of other species, as well as stealing their habitats, for the exclusive use of humans. This means stealing the treasures buried under Mother Earth’s skin, non-renewable resources that are available only once, and invariably come to the surface in the company of poisons. Theft also means mining renewable resources at a rate which exceeds their natural renewal. Theft is how we support our way of life, and we are aided in this Theft by authoritarian technics. Without this technology we could not possibly be dismantling the world at the present accelerating rate, and yet many of us embrace this authoritarian technology as an ally and friend, as essential to a viable future.
As I said to begin with, we are all captives of culture. We all buy into the normalcy bias. We are all invested in the world we grew up in and know. These things are not in themselves aberrations. They are a normal reaction to being a cultural animal. But if we are to break out of the prison that has been created within our own minds—created by a pathological culture, which is itself manipulated by our “own” runaway systems—we have to be able to step outside of culture; see through it, see beyond it, to begin to understand the trap we are in.
Projecting backwards from inside the bubble, using all the assumptions, logic, and doctrines of the bubble and applying them to a time that was much different in its assumptions, logic, and doctrines, and whose physical and spiritual situation was markedly different from our own, is to commit the error of reductionism. It is to blur distinctions, and paint vast stretches of human experience as all one thing, an unbroken continuum, when in fact civilization is the very thing that broke the flow, the pattern of the human as fully integral to the Earth Community. This is a common error. It is not difficult to understand why it happens. A lifetime of indoctrination is not that easy to overcome. But if we want to understand the true human condition, and the genuine human prospect, it is going to be necessary to step out of the bubble, and try to see the world without the distortions of this culture’s driving agenda.