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 Anthropik.com.
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 Anthropik.com, 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 Anthropik.com, 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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