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Is a new model of civilization impossible?

Walter Haugen in his recent blog post,No Anthropologists Have Been Injured - Or Even Consulted! questions the usefulness of thinking about civilization and criticizes certain efforts to do so by saying they are not informed by anthropological knowledge. He implies that any such thinking, and in particular certain ones, including the approach I am taking, are likewise uninformed.

He says,
However, the caveat is that Sweeney's ideas (and also those of Albert Bates and Stephen Gaskin when they started the Farm in Tennessee) may also have no underpinning of what civilization really is.

He presents the conventional view that civilization is characterized by (among other things):
  • Primary producers of food paying surpluses to deity or ruler
  • Ruling class exempt from manual labor
  • Regular importation of raw materials
  • Interdependence of classes (peasants, craftspeople, rulers)
In his conclusion he says "...civilization is a trap and it cannot be reformed."

I am certain Walter is well-informed and know he is well-intentioned and working hard on food production, the foundation of organized life. I
applaud his efforts and appreciate his interest in thinking about things
on a civilizational level.

Fortunately I am not trying to reform civilization as he describes it but to replace it with something fundamentally better. Sounds audacious, right? Agreed, but it's also potentially practical. Besides, our other choices suck.

Walter makes the mistake of assuming that what has been done already defines the limit of what can be done. That unfounded assumption leaves us facing the choice of whether to have civilization (identified as inherently exploitative and destructive) or not. This choice has a problem. In fact, more than one.

If we lose a larger structure of organized social life the only option is to move (willingly or not) to more "decomposed" forms such as villages, tribes and extended families. This is one way civilizations have collapsed in the past - they dis-integrate into smaller autonomous units.

In the absence of a larger system preventing such things a series of isolated agrarian hamlets is an invitation to raiders and then to warlord structures, which are elite domination already. They can consolidate into larger systems we could call civilizations, and there we are again.

Parasitical attitudes and the war-making skills and resources that come with them as a package eventually result in elite-dominated systems. Even resisting them results in creating an internally supported military caste which eventually results in an elite-dominated system, one way or another.

Distributed agrarian hamlets as a way of life can therefore be no more than a transitional phase giving rise to another system of elite exploitation. Walter's wheat will wind up feeding some gang with military training, superior mobility and superior firepower. Thinking the agrarian village model is a solution to the problems of civilization is a fantasy. The same thinking applies to all ideas about destroying civilization unless there is something to replace it that prevents raiders from arising. I invite suggestions as to how this is mistaken.

Fortunately "civilization or agrarian hamlets" is a false choice because it leaves out the possibility of learning, from which new forms can arise. Just such a new form is what I am offering in what I call a new model of civilization. To arrive at this new possibility I take a new road.

The view I take is that we humans have a "primordial question" which is "How can we live?" The same question may be present in some way in all creatures, for they seek what sustains or extends life and avoid what extinguishes it, but I will not try to make that argument right now.

Civilization as it has been practiced until now is only one answer to "How can we live?" In brief it comprises a dominant elite exploiting the available social production and natural resources, perhaps providing in return military defense and some degree of social order to maintain its legitimacy. Inevitably it overextends and collapses. I am not trying to fix or sustain this model.

That structure is not the only possible answer to the question, however. We have models of large human systems we can upgrade to the running of civilization in ways that are increasingly sustainable in the long term, socially coherent, beneficial to all people, decentralized, naturally global, innovative, and effectively resistant to being taken over by gangs (elites) intent on domination. Furthermore this model has the potential resources to establish itself and grow now, even in the face of the existing system.

Even further, we are quite familiar with the model and it can be applied at every level of human cooperation. Moving from a conventional understanding of society and civilization to this new view is a challenge, though, simply because it is an unfamiliar way to think. Repeating the same actions and expecting different results is insanity, though, so finding something different to do might be a step toward sanity, and if it is really different that could be a good sign.

The underlying structure is that of a "system of collective intelligence" as is used in science, technology and capitalism to further their aims. Each of these has a core question to which it pursues increasingly effective answers which are selected on the basis of objective results. Each is decentralized, global, highly innovative, resilient, and adaptive.

If the same process is followed with a civilizational core question of, for instance, "How can all human beings have satisfying lives while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?" we would systematically identify and adopt the best available options. Such choices would be adapted to local conditions, worldwide.

This structure does not necessitate nation-states, nor does it say they have to cease. Their position would evolve. It is a globally systemic approach, taking into account all environmental and social factors, and it eliminates the assumption of "us against them" embedded in the "competing nations" model. In this way it lays the intellectual foundation for an attitude that there is only us, one humanity.

That question could be adopted by interested people anywhere on the planet, making them part of a global community working toward an increasingly good set of answers to the core question, with each person respected and included.

The question does not eliminate political considerations. It is not a theoretical question but a real one, to be taken literally. What would it take?

"Satisfying" is not the same as "stuffed with consumer products" but relies on the assumption that with satisfaction of nonmaterial needs as described by Marshall Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication, addiction to material consumption in a vain attempt to fill internal voids can drop away, leaving enough materially for everyone when that material is used in increasingly efficient ways.

This post is long enough so if you'd like to read more go to my site, and read "A New Model of Civilization." Or if you want to discuss it, invite me to talk to your group, as the NeoTribalism Club at WWU has, tonight from 7-9. You're invited too. It's in the Viking Union, room 567.

However, I do have to correct two points Walter raises. Proclaiming no anthropologists have been consulted is incorrect. My degree is in Sustainable Culture and my advisor in that degree was and is an anthropologist. I am currently taking more anthropology classes. Anthropology is simply silent or baffled on the questions I am raising.

Failure to repeat "expert" opinion is no vice when that expert opinion has little to say. Failure to adopt excessively limited terminology and let that limit one's thinking is also no vice. The explanations of Jared Diamond and other writers on the subject fail to convince or explain how collapse came about in terms of the human decision-making that created that result, or how to prevent collapse. Diamond is good as far as he goes and I do not contradict him but am charting new ground. Transition to a new model seems to me to be the only viable or, rather, disireable choice.

A second point, important perhaps to no one but in the interest of historical accuracy, is that Albert Bates ought not to be listed with Stephen Gaskin as a founder of The Farm. I have nothing but admiration for Albert, whom I knew slightly when I was there, so this is not to diminish what he has done and is doing, but he was one of hundreds of people who accompanied Stephen to Tennessee to establish The Farm.

Nor does it make sense to criticize the anthropological sophistication of either of them. Never did I hear "civilization" as such discussed when I was there. I was not in the core group and Albert was, having been on The Caravan, so they may have had such discussions, but they were not public.

I do know that the idea was to live in such a way that all people on earth could also live that way and that the attempt was totally serious and could have worked. There is and was nothing ignorant in that ambition nor in the attempt. For instance, The Farm was one of two totally vegan communities on earth. The other is an Irish monastery. The UN studied our health and said we were very healthy but needed Vitamin B12. Some was added to the daily soy milk. Solved. The Farm is also the nexus from which the modern interest in midwifery emanated as another creative response to the challenge of actually living sustainably. Ina May Gaskin with Spiritual Midwifery started that wave. Much else was accomplished.

So if not thinking conventionally is a critique, I accept it. If new thinking is needed, I invite you to trust your own intelligence and bring what you know to contribute to what we can create.

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