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The Challenges of Accepting Civilization as Unsustainable and Unhealthy

August 27th, 2007 by Howard Ditkoff

A Tentative Awakening

Early on in medical school, around 1997, I first read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The book, which explores the origins, history, future and challenges of modern industrial civilization, changed my thinking more profoundly than anything I had read up to that point and exposed me to a number of concepts that would influence my life forever after. Though at the time I may have related more personally to some of the symptomatic consequences discussed by Quinn, ultimately the most fundamental realization to which I was first exposed at that time was the book’s overall conclusion that civilization as a social structure is inherently unsustainable and unhealthy for human beings.

However, being young, stressed to the limit with medical school’s responsibilities and firmly entrenched in the pursuit of the American Dream, I was simply unable to fully internalize what I had come to understand. While Quinn’s concepts rang true to me intellectually, they remained compartmentalized, somehow separate from the everyday tasks of living. I thought endlessly about what I had read and its implications, spoke to some people in my life about the ideas, but remained firmly on the very same life course as before I had read the book.

Over the next several years, I went on to reread Ishmael several times, as well as to read all of the other books Quinn put out in the series, including The Story of B, My Ishmael, and the aptly titled Beyond Civilization. With each reading of one of his works, the concepts took a firmer footing, and the implications sunk in deeper and began to seep more and more out of their compartmentalized state.

Then one day in the library, I happened upon a book called A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen. Jensen took many of the concepts that Quinn talked about rather academically and expressed them in terms so personal and emotionally descriptive as to begin to shatter the defenses that kept my growing awareness separate from my day-to-day life choices. Where Quinn’s books would make my jaw drop with each epiphany revealed by his precise logic, Jensen’s books would send tears streaming down my face with each poetic passage describing in rich detail the personal and social abuses stemming inevitably from the violence of civilized life. A Language Older than Words still may remain the most powerful book I’ve ever read, both as a result of Jensen’s incredible writing, as well as the timing of when I read it.

I then went on to read another of Jensen’s powerful books, The Culture of Make Believe, as well as to see him speak twice. This book, and his talks, even further awakened me to the inevitable nature of violence and dysfunction inherent in the structure of civilization. And so it continued over the next several years that at each stage and with each book and experience, my awareness of the fundamental flaws of the civilizational structure became clearer and more undeniable and my increased understanding led me to see confirming evidence more and more widely in my life and environment. However, despite all of these insights, I still managed to maintain a “protective” distance from their full implications.

Greater Acceptance: The Impact of Endgame

Two weeks ago, in a matter of days, I devoured the over 900 pages of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Endgame, Volume 2: Resistance. Jensen says that in A Language Older than Words, he attempted to show that civilization is irredeemable from the standpoint of psychology, while in The Culture of Make Believe, he tries to do the same from a social perspective. However, in Endgame, Jensen shows that civilization is irredeemable from the standpoint of physical “resources”.

Even as an abstract thinker and a person who cares deeply about the psychological and social perspectives, there was still nothing as convincing for me as being shown the concrete physical reasons why civilization is not and can never be sustainable or healthy for humans. By defining civilization as “a culture that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities” and cities 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,” Jensen demonstrates why we can never maintain civilized life without continuous violent exploitation of “resources” from an endlessly increasing base of colonies. For some reason, despite all of my earlier exposure to these issues, I had never seen this aspect of civilization laid so bare as in Endgame.

I am not going to go into detail here about the exact arguments for why civilization is in fact unsustainable and unhealthy for humans. Those arguments are made quite clearly and convincingly in a number of places, including, among many others:

  • Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael and Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn
  • A Language Older than Words, The Culture of Make Believe and Endgame by Derrick Jensen
  • The Thirty Theses by my friend Jason Godesky at

Furthermore, I have no idea when, how, in what form or at what speed civilization may collapse and wouldn’t dare to make such predictions. I have heard various people claim that collapse is already in progress, heralded by the arrival of peak oil a few years ago, and others claim that civilization may either sputter or rush forward for hundreds of years more before finally exhausting crucial natural “resources.” Ultimately, however, the timing of a potential collapse influences not whether an awareness of civilization’s inherent flaws affects us, but to what degree and in what nature. For, it is not only the actual collapse of civilization that is relevant, but also the increasingly unhealthy physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual effects brought upon us in the present both by its direct effects and from the awareness of likely collapse within a matter of several generations.

If the collapse remains far off in the future, we are still faced with the cognitive dissonance of living and working in a system that adversely affects our health – and threatens the long-term health and security of our children and grandchildren – while trapping us into leveraging our life energy to perpetuate that very ultimately hopeless system. If the collapse is imminent, then we must add to this the concrete difficulties of emergency planning for survival in a future world with which we are fundamentally unfamiliar. Therefore, regardless of when or how collapse may threaten to unfold, an acceptance of civilization’s inherent unsustainability and unhealthiness brings with it a profound psychic and emotional impact, whether or not it brings, within our lifetimes, a physical impact directly upon us.

Here I just want to talk about the experience of being faced with and coming to terms with this understanding.

Barriers to Internalization

The internalization of this issue is made very difficult in several major ways.

First of all, civilization itself is set up in such a way as to obstruct these facts from our vision. Our mainstream schools, media, economic system, religions and other institutions are all set up in such a way as to help us maintain a cognitive dissonance that separates the reality of what is going on from our day-to-day sense of life. Those of us in more affluent “First World” nations remain insulated, as many of the consequences of civilization’s inherent destructiveness remain distant, affecting peoples and lands that we may never see. Many of these effects are simply not shown to us on the news or in schools, while others are put forth as unfortunate, but isolated and independently soluble blemishes on the record of an otherwise highly beneficial system. Thus, despite the obvious insanity of a system that places its economic needs above the needs of the natural world on which it depends for its existence, those who begin to see the system’s flaws can come to feel, surrounded by such active and passive denial, rather insane themselves.

Secondly, we realize unconsciously, and to varying degrees consciously, that acknowledging civilization’s inherent flaws will bring with it psychic pain, difficulty in functioning and possibly ostracism. Thus, our own defense mechanisms kick in and aid civilization’s own mechanisms in bolstering our denial.

In Ishmael, before being taught many of these lessons, the main character is told

“Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you, ‘How can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?’ And if you do this, people will look at you oddly and wonder what the devil you’re talking about. In other words, if you take this educational journey with me, you’re going to find yourself alienated from the people around you – friends, family, past associates, and so on.”

In Beyond Civilization, Quinn says that while people can begin in small ways to accept this understanding and begin to experiment with living in new ways, “they probably should be prepared, however, for the outrage of their neighbors.”

We know on a deep level that to question the most fundamental aspects of our social structure puts us at odds with most of those around us and we therefore understandably may struggle against even asking or being asked such questions.

We also know that ultimately accepting the premise that civilization is irredeemably flawed would throw into question our justifications for thoughtlessly doing jobs, owning luxuries, implementing parenting choices, and living lifestyles with which we’ve grown accustomed and comfortable. It also brings with it profound challenges to which we know there are no easy answers, threatening us with two of the greatest fears many of us can ever face - fear of the unknown and fear of death. For all of these reasons, our own psyches may avoid at all costs a full acceptance of this premise.

Finally, we are, in a way, numb to discussions of collapse. There have been doomsday prophets crying wolf throughout the centuries and, since they were always wrong, it makes it hard for us to believe that this time it’s real. At present, this is still probably my own greatest barrier to complete acceptance of civilization as unsustainable.

There are many things within civilization that are difficult to come to terms with due to this triple-pronged mechanism of external obstruction and insulation, internal denial and repetition-induced numbing. We daily fail to flinch at stories of rape, abuse, neglect and other horrors from throughout our society and around the world. But there may be nothing more difficult for most people to accept than the realization that the entire social structure from which these horrors emanate is itself fundamentally and irredeemably unsustainable and unhealthy at its core. Civilization is our ultimate addiction – or as a friend of mine calls it “our greatest lie” – and acknowledgement and acceptance of its detrimental nature is the ultimate taboo.

A Vast Spectrum of Responses

Given the overwhelming magnitude of this issue, it is no surprise that people react in a wide spectrum of ways to even a mention of the concept of inherent flaws in our fundamental social structure.

  • Some people run, frightened and/or angry, from the discussion completely. For example, the other day I brought up the topic with someone I had spoken with for a couple of weeks in an instant messaging chat. Within minutes of simply discussing the topic, this person angrily bolted, blocking me and refusing to talk anymore
  • Some argue vociferously against civilization’s unsustainability and unhealthiness, putting forth any number of arguments. They often attempt to favorably compare our way of life with a simplified and demonizing concept of what indigenous tribal life was like or fall back on the hope that various forms of technological progress will save our way of life. However, these and many other arguments, are rather well-refuted in many of the sources to which I’ve referred earlier, as well as in even greater detail in many others.
  • Some claim that since we are all going to die anyway, or since eventually the sun will disappear dooming life on earth, the topic is irrelevant. This is an argument that, to me, reflects the learned helplessness and minimizing defense mechanisms often instilled by life in an unhealthy, unsustainable system.
    There is a difference between living in a self-destructive system that threatens to collapse within a few generations as opposed to one that is poised to continue in a manner satisfying to most of its members for many thousands of years (as many indigenous cultures did before civilization’s arrival), even if not forever. There is a difference in living a life that supports a sustainable and empowering system for oneself and one’s children and grandchildren, as opposed to being trapped into supporting a system that causes all of us harm. And these differences matter regardless of their temporary nature to anyone who loves life, loves themselves and loves their families and the world. But the acknowledgment of those vast differences is tantamount to a painful acceptance of how much has been lost to us and future generations through our culture’s destructive ways. The denial of the significance of these differences is, as Derrick Jensen often points out, the reaction of those whose fear and pain have at least partially and tragically cut off their capacity to love.
    This is also a rather disingenuous argument because I’m quite sure that if most of these same people were directly physically attacked, they would defend themselves, not reason that since their death is eventually inevitable and the sun is going to disappear, it doesn’t matter if they live a long and healthy life while they are here. For some of us, the inevitability of death at some point does not eliminate the importance of defending ourselves from either immediate physical attackers or the longer-term threats of a destructive system on us and our descendants. For some of us, the impossibility of eternal life does not render the goal of a satisfying life in the present and near future meaningless. It is irresponsible of those who choose to take such a nihilistic view to excuse the effects of a harmful system on others who do care deeply about the quality of life for ourselves and our descendants.
  • Some ultimately accept it as evident that civilization is unhealthy and unsustainable, but, like I often have, are able to compartmentalize this knowledge as simply an abstract awareness, while continuing on their very same life path with seemingly no effect.
  • Some actually find great solace and vindication in the understanding and acceptance of civilization’s role (real or imagined) in their discomfort. For those who are extremely unhappy with their lives for any number of reasons, civilization’s flaws may become either a valid explanation or a convenient excuse for their unsatisfying situation. This may help them assume, accurately or not, the role of a victim rather than the originator of their circumstances, even without the need to directly blame those around and close to them, who are now also seen as simply co-victims of the system. For many intellectuals, especially, such understanding can bring great comfort in comparison to the frustration of a dissatisfying situation with no apparent explanation.
  • Some, like my friends Jason, Mike and Giuli at, manage to not only accept civilization’s inherent shortcomings, but to begin to take action based on this understanding through awakening others, learning survival skills, recruiting support and community, and seeking alternative ways to live in what is, to them, a potentially very real and imminent aftermath scenario.

The Effect of Awareness of Civilization’s Flaws on My Ongoing Journey

My growing awareness and evolving acceptance of the unsustainability and unhealthiness of civilization has had a profound influence on my life. As mentioned, upon first reading Ishmael, I experienced great intellectual comfort as it compellingly explained many things I had felt inside pertaining to everything from school to family to relationships. Even though at the time I wasn’t able to even consider taking any real actions based on that knowledge, I still found knowledge more satisfying than the unknown or the various hollow explanations I had received up until that time.

Later, my understanding of the flaws of the fundamental system, and how our current medical – and especially mental health – systems support that larger system helped solidify my decision to leave the mainstream field and culture of medicine and psychiatry. I later realized, as I continued to explore, that in order to foster a healthier system, it was paramount to help myself and others to re-emerge by regaining our senses of identity, awareness and emotional authenticity, so often strongly suppressed by the culture. This step toward a more constructive application of my understanding was instrumental in my involvement in projects like the Linx Institute and Emergent Associates.

Reading Endgame, Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Endgame, Volume 2: Resistance has brought an even deeper level of acceptance and awareness and has, admittedly, thrown me into some confusion again about what are the most appropriate next steps for me. Some aspects of my life now seem less important than before, others more important. It will take time to again reassess my priorities in light of this even greater understanding.

Finding Our Roles in The Re-Emergence of Sustainability and Health

As Jensen says in Endgame, the “good thing” about living in a system that is so fundamentally flawed is that everywhere you look, there is important work to be done. People are needed to protect the lands, waters, air, animals and plants that still remain healthy or salvageable. People are needed to support the healing and re-emergence of people hurt in the many ways that our civilized life can hurt them directly and indirectly. People are needed to write, speak and educate, raising awareness and bringing more people to an awakened state. People are needed, like my friends at, to begin seriously studying how to live in alternative ways. And people are needed for countless other tasks, big and small.

The crucial question, as has now been confirmed for me again and again from numerous angles, remains this: What are the most important leverage points at which your talents, strengths and skills can make an impact to improve the health of yourself and your community? For many of us, there may appear no simple answer. But there are tools and methods of approaching the topic – for example Systems Thinking, Appreciative Inquiry, the Internal Family Systems model, the Imago Relationship model and other methods that inform my work with Emergent Associates - that can help generate more authentic and inspiring possibilities for ourselves. As my awareness continues to grow, I find myself needing to go back to those tools to reassess what my role should be.

Community and Support: The Only Certain Answer

There is only one answer that I do know is true for all of us and that is that we all need community and support. When I first finished reading Ishmael nearly ten years ago, the only thing I knew for sure was that I needed to find others of like mind for mutual support and to consider next steps. This is what motivated my involvement at the time in several projects related to Daniel Quinn’s work.

After reading Endgame, that remains my strongest certainty. Community and support, as described in books like Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, have been shattered as our way of life has systematically eliminated more communal and tribal social structures. Everyone, no matter what their stage of denial or awareness regarding the inherent issues of civilization, can benefit from greater connection to others.

For those of us coming to a greater awareness of these issues, support and community become especially important. Such awareness within the current environment can be a very lonely situation. So for those of you starting to question the sustainability and health of civilization and our culture, coping with that growing awareness, and seeking out or enacting your role within that context, let me know. Some of you I can offer support through my coaching, consulting and educational services. Others I can offer my willingness to co-develop new projects. Others I can offer friendship. And surely many of you have valuable and much-needed things to offer me. Together, we can seek the best ways to move forward.

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    25 Responses to “The Challenges of Accepting Civilization as Unsustainable and Unhealthy”

    1. Dena Braves Says:

      Excellent work, Howard. My new little blog has already paid huge dividends by getting me to your site. I spent the morning with it and gained a great deal of insight. Well done! Have added your link to my blog and ordered Endgame.

    2. Peter Dodson Says:

      Great stuff Howard. I saw your comment on my post and wanted to drop by and say hello. Would love to chat at some future point and work on some ideas. The more there are of us to help us thru this, the better.

      I think for me the biggest driver for change isn’t the fact that society will collapse physically, but as you say it is so unhealthy to us as individuals. Too much unahppiness and emptiness. There has to be a better way. All the best and I look forward to reading more. Peter.

    3. John Van Doren Says:

      Thanks Howard. I enjoyed learning a bit about your personal journey. What you’ve shared both parallels and informs my own journey. Endgame now becomes the next book on my reading list. John

    4. Brian Hokanson Says:

      Howard -

      I think the last part of your post does a good job of articulating what I didn’t really have the space/ability to say in the last part of my review of Endgame. Which is, this anti-civ stuff is great and all, but it requires serious support. We live in a culture - and have to make concessions and compromises with that culture - that thrives on pushing us away from each other, dividing and conquering on such a basic level that I don’t know who my neighbors are. Ending that culture requires finding support, and this is perhaps the toughest part of the work there is.

      Jensen says that the work to be done to prepare for the crash doesn’t have to look radical, or primitivist, or even look like it has any sort of a political context. It can look like community gardens, or wilderness survival training, or (I suppose) just finding friends for the purpose of support. I’m at a stage in my life where I try to put everything in a radical political context, and so I don’t have much support because not everything looks like that (yet).

      Just browsing your site it seems like you’ve been able to find a way balance surviving under capitalism with maintaining a radical analysis, and done a lot of thinking about roles and leverage points. I commend you for that!

    5. murph Says:


      Thanks for stopping by the Real Deal. Your essay describing your journey has similarities to the searching that marked the 60’s and 70’s. Course it could be an old codger just having trouble remembering accurately.

      One of the problems I see today is that the dissatisfaction is leading many to look for a guru, a savior on a white horse, a new Kennedy, a Kerouac. I have read the Quinn books and find them inspiring and useful, even with the realization that he makes a bunch of assumptions that have absolutely no basis in fact. They aren’t even viable suspicions. Pre history is, and until we figure out how to do time travel, a mystery. I see TV programs all the time that do the same, great story telling but lousy science. When this seeking for a savior takes on political overtones, we are really in trouble, and that is also happening today. When the next elitist trumpets his “save us all” agenda is when I lock and load.

      I do think that yourself and others that proclaim that civilization, as we define it, is flat out unsustainable over time, are absolutely correct. Too many large civilizations have fallen due in part to resource depletion. I guess to believe otherwise we have to buy into the abiotic oil concept and magic. Wouldn’t it be a gas if they were right? Lol.

    6. Howard Says:


      You hit the nail on the head. That’s part of what the post’s goal was, as well as what this entire blog and website is about, helping connecting with each other. Glad you got in touch.

      I was just talking with someone yesterday about the fact that coming to terms with all of this is definitely a process, and for many of us the first step is a more extreme rebellious attitude. We tend to go all the way to the other pole, which is understandable, but also makes it harder to connect with others and take responsibility for our own inner growth. It was a long step for me to go from the rebellion stage to the inner focus stage. Now that I’ve done a lot of inner work, I am starting to ask how to focus back outward again in a healthier way. That switch from outward rebellion to inner growth was the main concept that led to the formation of my company and is the purpose of a lot of work I do with clients from this standpoint.

      I definitely am trying to find the balance you mention. Hope the site helps you find some insights and if I can help in any other way let me know and keep in touch.

    7. Howard Says:


      I can’t comment on the 60’s and 70’s, but I suspect that the greater awareness of environmental issues even in the mainstream in this day and age makes this topic a little more concrete than it was then. As for Quinn, he writes over and over again not to look to him as a savior. He also writes in The Story of B at length about salvationism as a major part of this dominant culture, not part of the type of culture to which we need to transition. Thanks for stopping by.

    8. John Van Doren Says:


      I backed into this trainwreck of unsustainability we’re on while researching my book on energy efficient home design. The tipping point for me was my research on Peak Oil and Gas and stumbling onto Bartlett’s Law’s. My blog has since taken on a different tone, and my personal mission(zero energy homes) has become quite clear. I was also surprised to find such a large and diverse community preparing for the crash. My guess is that the tipping point for the general population will be the realization of long term and persistent oil and gas shortages with no magic bullets in sight.

    9. Dena Braves Says:

      Anyone familiar with CRADLE TO CRADLE? I saw a great documentary on the Sundance Channel Tuesday night, WASTE = FOOD, describing McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle philosophy.

    10. Brian Hokanson Says:

      Yeah… I picked up Cradle to Cradle a while ago, and put it down after a few pages feeling kind of disgusted. From what I read and have heard, it’s basically a much-longer-than-necessary argument boiling down to the idea that capitalism really can be green if we try hard enough and if the American mass of people suddenly rises up and starts making slightly more sane choices.

      Which is not going to happen anyway, so I say - why not attack the roots of the problem, starting with capitalism. The book itself - it’s made out of some sort of synthetic “treeless” somethingarother - is a perfect metaphor for “green capitalism,” as if shifting the death burden from trees to some other unsustainable “resource” is going to solve anything in the long run.

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    12. Janene Says:

      Hi Howard –

      Strange the cycles we run in…. I just spent an afternoon last week exploring some of your earlier writings, visiting Mark over at potluck and so forth…. then had a nice long talk with Jim C last night and Matt today… Devin showed up at Ishtink last night, and then I see you posting a referal at IshThink this afternoon. Seems like we each go our own ways for a while and then suddenly all ‘return to the fold’ for a little community refresher. Do we call that some kind of syncronicity?

      Whatever it is… couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

      As to the post itself… I really dig where you go with this. My journey has been more internal than externally inspired (ie, it’s not new reading etc, but rather my own personal journey that has clarified things for me), but I am pretty close tot he same place you are at this point: almost but not quiet ready to lvie this new worldview. I have described it as ‘mostly living in the hands of the gods… but still fighting them for control at times’ :-)

      Keep the good stuff rolling… hope everything is generally going well for you :-)


    13. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hey Janene. I posted the referral a while ago, but I’m glad you found it today. I’ve been wanting to get back in touch with all of those people myself so tell them hello. Glad you got in touch and hope we can all stay more in touch, as that is obviously part of the point of this post. Let me know if you want to talk more.

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    16. hellaD Says:

      Hey Howard, thanks so much for your comment on my site a while back. I really appreciate your well expressed thoughts on these issues. I real Ishmael many years ago as well, it must have been 1999, shortly after I fled the US of A and decided there must be a kind of a collective insanity that ruled the country and influenced those under it’s influence (similar to IT in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time). I need to read it again. I also am eager to get my hands on the Endgame books.

      I got really sick and had to stop working and being so self-sufficient a couple years back and have had to rely on family and community. It was really tough in many ways and frustrating, but definitely worth it. I am so glad to find your site, and the great information and resources in it, so very necessary in our world.

    17. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for your kind words. Of course the “IT” you refer to is closely related to what Daniel Quinn calls “Mother Culture.” Jensen is a little more direct in his tenth premise of Endgame when he says “The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane.” I highly recommend you read Endgame. Very powerful work.

      Thanks for linking to my piece and sharing my site with others. And best of luck to you in maintaining that support system you’ve found.

    18. Rich Says:

      What’s your response to the argument that overall well-being isnt THAT much worse than hunter-gatherer days? Or, taking the argument further, that life naturally contains some randomly determined level of suffering, which by chance for some organisms in the ecology will be exceptionally high?

      The system might be insane with personality-disordered people in position of power, but then again, in the west we also dont have to fight for our lives against sabertooth tigers, rival tribes that want to murder us, take our hunting grounds and rape our women, or simple bacterial infections that kill us slowly and excruciatingly painfully.

      Could be argued that life IN GENERAL involves a random level of pain and suffering, and seems like some people in any society get more than their fair share of it, be it civilisation or our “natural” tribal society. Life is an evolved gene-propagation vehicle, and perhaps happiness and well-being are only states evolved for that purpose, not states that we are inherently entitled to or are ‘the natural way of things’ in any sense.

      What do you reckon? I’m playing devil’s advocate because I’d love to hear your take on this.

    19. SystemsThinker Says:


      Well as far as well-being, I wouldn’t deny that some aspects of well-being are better these days, especially for some people in some of the more affluent parts of the world (but clearly not for some others, who absolutely do fear for their lives from rival gangs, fear being raped, die by the thousands from infections daily and so on.) It is a cost-benefit analysis. Are the things that are better for some worth the cost of the things that are worse - or are likely to become worse - for others. And if your value system leads to concern about our impact on the rest of the ecosystem both now and in the future, whether for its own sake or even just for its ultimate impact on humanity, then you will factor that into the cost.

      My concern, and the concern of most of the people I refer to, is about two things.

      One is sustainability, which is a structural issue, separate from just adding up how much suffering is taking place at any one time. If our reduced suffering in the short term comes at the price of significantly diminishing the capacity of the ecosystem to support us and other creatures in the future, is that worth it (or ethical)?

      The second is health. And health is a complicated subject. People differ on what they mean by health. Some believe that simply being able to stay alive without suffering too much is health. But this is a somewhat narcsissistic view, quite literally. Narcissists often cause more damage to those around them than they ever perceive themselves. So are they healthy? I see health as being tied to a particular species’ evolutionary heritage. It may be healthy for a shark to do things that it is not healthy for humans do because our evolution imbues us with different capacities and needs. So the question is whether humans are fulfilling those needs that, due to our evolutionary heritage, are important for us to have a balance not only individually, but within our systems as a whole. The question is not whether we are more content in the short term or feel less suffering. A cocaine addict may feel both of those things for some period…until the price of the escapism kicks in.

    20. Rich Says:

      Nicely put. Yes, good counterpoints on Sustainability and Health… I think you nailed it.

      I like your take on the definition of Health as determined by evo heritage. It seems we’re just so far from hunter-gatherer lifestyle these days. A prime example, attachment disorders supposedly have their roots in early neglect, and this is almost absent in hunter gatherer societies - mothers kept their infants literally next to their bodies all day, slept next to them, etc, because they had to. 100% secure attachment. Pretty immediately clear how that might make for a much Healthier tribal society!

      One thing I’d love to know is, how did we get to where we are now? Presumably it’s something like:

      Evolution selected for complex thought + language which conferred advantages as hunter-gatherers
      -We used complex thought + language to change our environment, driven by short term survival drives (food + shelter: i.e. farms and settlements)
      -Farming exploded population, coupled with our status as dominant species, we turned our environment into civilisation

      Are we just one of those species that’s taken a wrong evolutionary turn? I wonder where the “virus” of psychological dysfunction (I think you can model it as that; abuse+neglect being transmitted down the generations) first crept in and started to propagate? Is it because we changed our environment with farming/settlements?
      Is it a byproduct of language I wonder? Is it just that the most disordered tend to have the strongest drive to become leaders, and so tribal species that can think are predisposed to this kind of fate?

      Viruses are certainly known to make species extinct. Are we just another unlucky species who’s biological make up has exposed us to a kind of memetic virus… Psychological Dysfunction propagating itself until it makes it’s host species extinct. I hope not!! Even if that’s a good model for it, we’ve found cures for other viruses in the past. Perhaps we can nail this one.

      Anyway. Glad I found your blog! Im also very interested in alot of topics you cover here, systems dynamics and IFS in particular. Looking forward to reading Ishmael too.

    21. SystemsThinker Says:


      I’m sure you’re aware of how attachment parenting has recently become a more mainstream issue. I know a lot of people who have had interest in it for a while now, many inspired by The Continuum Concept.

      If you want to know how we got from there to here, Ishmael is definitely one of the best books to delve into that.

      You are asking one of the main questions that fascinates me too. Why did we take this potentially disastrous evolutionary turn and feel driven to stick with it? I, and several others I respect, think it comes from a perfect storm of a few factors. But most recently, I’ve been speculating greatly on how much psychopathy and related disorders played a role in the genesis of this.

      I’m glad you found my blog too. You’re asking extremely important and insightful questions that are among the ones that most interest me, as well.

    22. bubbu nonuthin Says:


      Regarding your article on “The Challenges of Accepting Civilization…” I have witnessed continually the things you have written about pertaining to the human condition.

      There is, however, one piece that is most important-the cornerstone-which seems to be off your radar at moment perhaps. It is human consciousness, not civilization, that is the core issue.

      Though you touch on the subject, regarding denial and death etc., it is a basic, and core ingredient that keeps humanity in perpetual illusion (which is just denial in its sister form)

      If you look back in history, there have been “human anomalies.” These individuals have evolved, “in the course of their own lives” into a state of existence which puts things back on proper course.

      These anomalies,

      Siddhartha Gotama

      Ehr Li
      Lao Tzu Biography - life, name, death, school, book, old, information, born, time

      Yeshua (Joshua) ben Josef

      …have all, in their own way, illuminated those core issues pertaining to humanity.


    23. SystemsThinker Says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I am not very into mysticism, however. So I’m making every effort to look at this issue from a scientific evidence-based perspective. Obviously, once mysticism comes into the picture, it’s an entirely different discussion. But we don’t need to look to mysticism to see the challenges with sustainability. And, too often, in fact, people use mysticism as a way to avoid facing the concrete challenges in terms of basic things like resource use.

      I think a discussion like this between someone heavily into mysticism and someone who has a more scientific epistemology is not likely to be fruitful until they address those fundamentally different perspectives first.


    24. Trish Says:

      Hello! Well i have been struggling with these issues for years. I just want to say that im grateful. Grateful to see others are out there who do care…who have thought about issues most people avoid religiously…im grateful for the wisdom woven into your words Howard. They hit the nail on the head in many ways. Thank you all for caring and for thinking. Im now into the beginning stages of doing and it makes all the difference. As does finding community where you can as Howard pointed out. So even if the world goes to shit im determined to be able to say on my deathbed that i did all i could to make things better. And if it does…i think our species will have proven itself to indeed not be the fittest or deserving of survival. Our arrogance betrays us…our egos are so very grand they will be our demise. How ironic that we claim to be the most intelligent species on earth! How ironic that we call ourselves human but are so inhumane! If i can give any advice it is to act …to live to make things fight for all those who come after us. And i thank you for it. Keep fighting the good fight friends ..and dont forget to smile once in awhile!

    25. James Williams Says:

      Thanks for honestly pointing out the emotional struggles tied to this subject. I’m a young man with autism whose emotional health was nearly destroyed when I accidentally stumbled into the anarcho-primitivst movement at the age of 14, and have yet to fully recover from it. I feel as if this idea has destroyed my entire soul. I’m glad others can understand even if they can’t relate to the pain of a young person who got extremely physically sick and suffered a massive breakdown based on the Internet writing of people he has never met, and never truly understood.

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