Choosing Power over Belonging: a Rough Timeline

At what point in human history or pre-history did we actually have a free choice between Power and remaining as a contributing member of the Community of Life? For quite a long time I would have identified the Neolithic Revolution and our embrace of agriculture and settled, hierarchical communities as the fateful turning point in human history. Some would go much further back, to our use of fire for cooking and heat, or to the development of language. But I don’t think that either fire or language caused any estrangement between us and all our relations. I think that began when our tool-making morphed into weapon-making and our technology began to give us, as a top predator, so much of an edge over our prey species that it threw the predator-prey relationship severely out of balance—which in turn threw the whole ecosystem out of balance.

The predator-prey relationship is a fine-tuned affair where predator and prey co-evolve to be well-matched antagonists, and as long as this relationship remains in balance both species benefit. The prey species is kept genetically and biologically fit in this symbiotic relationship, as it is the weak, malformed, or diseased that generally falls as prey. The predator species is also kept genetically and biologically fit, while enjoying the bonus of some high-protein nutrition. For early human hunters, the spear, by itself, could be effective at close quarters on an animal of some size, but this level of technology likely didn’t tip the scale dramatically in favor of humans. The atlatl (or spear thrower), on the other hand, may have been just innovation enough to give the humans that extra edge, thereby upsetting the co-evolutionary balance. Now, if we put ourselves in the place of a Paleolithic hunter who has an extended family to feed, it is hard to imagine that we would have the foresight to see that this new technology was anything but a boon. And even when we found our favored prey species declining, I doubt we would choose to abandon out atlatls for the sake of ecological balance, and for our positive standing within the Community of Life. But this, or something like it, was an important turning point in terms of human destiny. Knowingly or not, we chose Power over Belonging, and thus began our first step in the direction of our present alienation from Mother Earth and the Community of Life.

The source of our new-found Power was technology, and our relationship with Power and technology has been a slippery slope ever since–the gradient growing steeper over time. “We shape our tools,” says Marshall McLuhan,” and then our tools shape us.”

But let’ say there were Paleolithic foraging groups who had the prescience to see where all this was leading–and thus refused to use their atlatls, thereby remaining in dynamic balance with their chosen ecosystem. If you believe Andrew Bard Schmookler’s account in The Parable of the Tribes: the Problem of Power in Social Evolution, what must inevitably happen is that their neighbors, the atlatl users, having stripped their own territory of game, invade the non-atlatl users. Enjoying the military advantage of a larger population (thanks to their technological innovation), and advanced weaponry that kills at greater distance, they overrun the ecologically benign group, whom either they kill, drive away, or incorporate into their own population. (A fourth option he mentions is the peaceful group taking preemptive action against their aggressive neighbors—in this case by becoming atlatl users themselves. The depressing result is that in each of these cases Power ultimately triumphs). It is a dark picture that Schmookler paints, because naked Power rules, and there is no escaping it. But Schmookler came up with this scenario by projecting backwards from the present, assuming that our wild ancestors would operate out of the same cutthroat value system and worldview as we do. But maybe they didn’t.

In Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, Morris Berman devotes his keen intellect and prodigious research to demonstrating the marked differences in human consciousness between Paleolithic and Neolithic humans. Berman describes Paleolithic consciousness as one that lives quite comfortably with paradox, in a world filled with incongruent truths—each of which is dealt with as it appears by a mind focused on the particulars of the moment. Among our Paleolithic ancestors, social relations tended toward the egalitarian, and this corresponds with an orientation to the world that Berman identifies as horizontal. This is in stark contrast to the vertical plane that defines the world of the agriculturalist. This mode of consciousness is characterized by rationality, abstraction, hierarchy, and a will toward transcendence. There are complicated reasons for why we are not content with the world around us as it is, ever seeking to transcend its concrete “hereness.” Much of the book is devoted to explaining our alienation from Mother Earth, but one salient factor is what Berman identifies as the Sacred Authority Complex, which locates all sacredness not here on Earth itself but at a great (vertical) distance somewhere far above. The Earth-centered, egalitarian way of being in the world has much to recommend it, but in the face of the violently Power-possessed: “Paradox and egalitarianism are extremely fragile flowers; it doesn’t take much for political and religious hierarchy to overwhelm them.” (78) Now, I am not imagining that the dichotomy that Berman sets up is in any way absolute or definitive, but it does strike me that the horizontal, egalitarian, paradoxical way of living in the world is well-suited to living modestly and in balance with the Community of Life, and that this is how most of our human forebears have lived.

The fly in the ointment, the spoiler, is the rising up of an aggressive sub-group of humans that has sold its former integrity and intimate connection to the Community of Life for Power–and (insatiably) seeks more Power by way of conquest. It only takes one such group to set in motion the dynamic described by Schmookler, which, given enough time (say ten thousand years) manages to contaminate, by way of colonization, nearly the whole world. Civilization’s live-as-we-do-or- die imperative now advances toward absolute hegemony under the flag of “globalization.”

The social and cultural institutions that came into being with the advent of agriculture—including private property and the consequent social stratification and authoritarianism; the reaping and storage of guarded surplus food; the rise of standing armies, ongoing wars, and ever-expanding ecocide—are doubtlessly implicated in the accelerating degradation of the living world. Add to these our population overshoot, which is directly attributable to agriculture, and you have part of the recipe for a world out of balance—but only part. Our resource over-reach, our ongoing drawdown and depletion of the geo-physical and bio-ecological world, could never have reached this stage by way of agriculture and its perverse institutions by themselves. Agriculture has all along had a partner in crime, and that partner is technology.

Maybe our fall into the technology trap began with the atlatl; maybe it was the bow and arrow or the stone ax. Identifying which particular technology started us down our present path is not important. What is important is coming to recognize technology for what it actually is: it is choosing Power over relatedness to our fellow Earthlings; it is choosing alienation from that which gives us life—our Mother, the Earth—and from her four billion year Project of Life. We have been told that technology is neutral, but technology has never been neutral, and never could be. To grasp what technology actually is it helps to understand the relationship our wild ancestors had with Mother Nature, when we were just another animal among many—before we got the big head that characterizes us now. Prior to becoming hunters and predators we were scavengers, and, sometimes, prey. We were part of a world in dynamic ecological balance. Our tools, our technology, gave us a leg up from this unfavorable condition. With the invention of the spear, we became hunters. As we refined our hunting technologies and improved our skills we became a top predator, and only occasionally prey. As I sit in twenty-first century technological comfort, I find it difficult to fault these ancient ancestors for embracing their improving status. It is hard to imagine any of us rejecting this new status of Power–Power conferred by technology. In hindsight, I can see it was a trap, one that has ensnared not only humans but all our relations and a fully functional living planet. But hindsight comes easier than foresight.

We sometimes distinguish between weapons and tools, and sometimes there is logic to the distinction. Generally, weapons are used against our own species, as in war or other conflicts, and against other species that we might want to kill for food, or “sport”, or out of antipathy. But our tools are very often weapons, too, and while the steel ax or the long-handled shovel might have once served humans in seemingly constructive ways, they and their technologically improved successors have managed to deforest more than half the globe while turning over, drilling into, or blowing up much of the other half. This is that slippery slope I spoke of, greased by greed and gravity and driven with accelerating urgency toward ruination. In this way, by technological succession, our tools become weapons against the Earth, turning the biosphere upside down, violently turning its accrued meanings inside out. This is what technology is, because this is what technology does.

Did we ever really have a choice? At what point should we have said no the Power and the rising status it offered? I have no answer to this. Certainly I don’t see anything like that happening now, at this late stage in the game. We are in too deep, too entangled in systems beyond all human control. Still, I think it is important to understand what happened to us; how things got to be this way. If ever, in some unknowable future, there were to be a few human survivors, I would wish them out of this trap—this Earth-devouring trap that is technology and agriculture locked-together as synergistic partners in ecocide.