Everyone seems pretty convinced that we have a big shake-up ahead, and given all the converging crises, it is likely to be cataclysmic. Just how cataclysmic is open to speculation, but I am going to assume very, for the sake of this thought experiment.
My ideal future scenario would involve no more than a million, and as few as ten thousand, survivors—scattered around the planet, in small groups, where the conditions for life still remain somewhat functional. Since this is an ideal scenario, I am going to assume that it is not the dregs of humanity, nor the corrupt super-rich that have survived, but ordinary intelligent people who are alert to the many snares that entangled those who went before, and are mindful that they themselves represent the last best chance for their own species’ continuation on planet Earth. Thus it is that when they walked away from the wreckage of civilization they brought no artifacts with them, understanding, finally, that every artifact of civilization, every technology, carries with it a Pandora’s Box of exponentially multiplying problems. They might not have read Lewis Mumford’s paper on “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” but they know the gist of it. Democratic technics are human-centered, and although not all basket-makers or flint-knappers are equally skilled, these are technologies open to anyone who might want to practice them. Authoritarian technics is hierarchical, not egalitarian, by its nature—and comes as a kind of trap. It is invariably system-centered, which means that humans serve as interchangeable functionaries within the system, and that these functionaries are compelled to serve the system’s own agenda and imperatives, not their own, even though the system ostensibly exists to serve humans. One of the more insidious imperatives is that the system must always continue to grow. In order to serve this system imperative, the human population is compelled to expand at rates well beyond what the natural economy can support. Our descendants, these People of the New Story, want no part of this.
The Neolithic Revolution was our wild ancestors’ first introduction to authoritarian technics. They almost certainly didn’t see it coming, but with settled agriculture came private property, and with private property came the social hierarchy of a class system. The storage of agricultural surpluses required guards, and the guards readily morphed into a permanent military class, which soon came in handy after topsoil was depleted in one place and it became necessary to move into new territory. With the advent of emperors and kings, with their armies of workers and armies of warriors, authority grew ever more centralized, and the systems of control became correspondingly totalitarian. One thing led to another…led to another…in tangles of system complexity, from pyramid building to empire building to industrial globalization, with a relentless progression that in hindsight looks like programmed inevitability. This is another pattern our People of the New Story don’t care to repeat.
Of all the living arrangements attempted by humans, one stands out above all the others for its long-lived success. That is the small band of twenty to thirty hunter- gatherers living as nomadic, egalitarian, animists of the immediate return variety. Their technics were, of course, of the democratic kind: bows and arrows; stick-and- grass baskets; and shelters that could be built or dismantled in minutes or hours. When you are regularly on the move you don’t collect any more possessions than you can conveniently carry. When all your wealth is in your relationships, and in your day-to-day life, there is no booty to entice possible raiders. Moving from place to place, living lightly as you go, allows the land to recover from any small insults inflicted in passing.
Having neighbors within travelling distance for occasional socializing and trade, and to keep the gene pool diverse through intermarriage, might have its advantages, so long as there was no real contention over territory. The paradigm of unrestrained growth that governed the Old Story of civilization will forever remain taboo within the New Story. Of course the physical resources that fed the endless growth paradigm will not be available to our descendants, and that should be deterrent enough. But beyond this there is the issue of personal freedom. Under the old system, all of humanity was enslaved, and had no choice but to live their lives as their systems required. Free humans– which means wild, undomesticated humans–will have no desire to step into that Progress Trap ever again. They have seen where that leads and how it stunted the full humanity of their ancestors.
Life could flourish on this basis pretty much indefinitely provided these hunter-gatherers followed two strict, interrelated, imperatives. Zero population growth is one. The other is that they live within the natural means of their land base. Fully understanding what is at stake, I don’t see why ordinary humans, living in a New and better Story, couldn’t just pull this off.
What do you think?