The beautiful film, Koyaanisqatsi, begins its panoramic tale of modern civilization with the launch of a rocket, which, like Icarus, begins its journey towards the great heights of heaven with so much promise. But, like Icarus, the rocket won’t make it — the wax will melt, the wings will fall, and it will plummet back to Earth. This is Koyaanisqatsi, “Life Out of Balance” in the Hopi language, and a great metaphor for our modern civilization.
There is a growing need to talk about why we’re in this mess and how we got here. Is habitat-destruction and toxification simply an aberration that began in the last couple of hundred years with the industrial revolution or has access to easy energy just accelerated the tendencies of an already aberrant humanity? And if these are aberrations, for what other animals pillage and rape their habitats, what does a real, earthy humanity look like?
Perhaps one of the greatest cultural falsehoods of the contemporary mythos is the story of Progress. We see it inscribed into all the civilized stories of humanity: Evolution, we are often told, follows a linear progression towards more and more advanced species, like humans. Or, human knowledge is increasingly more advanced and closer and closer to truth than ever before. Or, technological progress is inevitable and the dream of all humans. And, once we’ve made a technological acheivement, we can never go back. Endless Growth, Endless Ascent.
This is not only wrong, but it’s also laced with incredible hubris, a hubris that denies the validity of cultures that have lived sustainably, that have not sought to develop increasingly advanced technology. If we are looking for visions for a “sustainable and just world,” it is incredibly important to look outside of this toxifying, earth-destroying culture (which knows nothing about sustainability) to cultures which are models of sustainable life-ways.
The aboriginal peoples of what-is-now-called “Australia” are a great example of sustainable human cultures. It is estimated that they have been living in that land for anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 years. That’s an incredible amount of time, especially considering that industrial civilization is less than 200 years old! We can also look to the First Peoples of the “North American” continent as teachers in sustainability, for many of these tribes have lived in their places for thousands of years without damaging the land. (It should also be noted that indigenous peoples have been devastated by this Unsustainable Culture and continue to be threatened by it — these Teachers for the rest of us are being erased, destroyed, killed.)
According to David Abram in his tremendous book, The Spell of the Sensuous, one of the aspects of indigenous cultures is that they don’t follow this linear view of the world where history can be plotted along a line of forwards (progress) and backwards (regress). Rather, all things come in cycles and seasons. There is a great round — the rise and fall of the sun every day, the turning of the seasons every year, the life of each person from birth to adult to elder, with each movement in the cycle having significance and meaning.
One of the things I notice in much of the discourse in environmental and climate movements is that the myths of progress and high technology are still here. There seems to be a fundamental and unquestioned assumption that computers, cell phones, and even electricity are with us to stay, or that cities are with us to stay, or that air conditioning and grocery stores are with us to stay, or that human populations of 6 billion+ are with us to stay and that we can somehow make, by force, all of these things sustainable if we try hard enough, if we power them with solar panels and windmills and do them “organically.” This seems like an awful lot of effort to prop up things that have never been sustainable and that have never existed, even in analog, in sustainable, indigenous cultures.
One of the biggest counter-arguments to any critique of progress and technology and modern civilization is the claim: We can’t go back, and why would we want to go backwards? The implied assumption is that many indigenous lifeways are “backwards” because they didn’t develop technology, but maintained simple tools for hunting, gathering, and horticulture.
Paul Shepard, in his eminent psychological work, Nature and Madness, reverses the story of progress. He says that if we look at the indigenous human societies, we see a complete, mature, full humanity. This is a maturity, Shepard claims, that falls into immaturity and hierarchy with the advent of agriculture and domestication of plants and animals. This movement continues throughout the history of civilization and onto the industrial age. From this perspective, a move towards sustainable lifeways, towards remembering our indigenous pasts, which all of us as humans share even if we’ve been cut off from it by many generations and thousands of years, is not a regression, is not “going backwards.” It’s a return home, a return to our humanity, a return to life in balance.
These dire times of ecological devastation and collapse should stimulate deep questions about who we are as humans and what we really value in life. Is it the internet and iPhones, or the relationships we have with each other? Is it zoos and discovery channel specials or is it relationships with our more-than-human brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers? Is it air conditioning and out-of-season tomatoes or is it the run of a river unimpeded by dams and air? Is it jobs we hate but tolerate or clear air all the way to the horizon (and beyond)? Is it pavement and sidewalks and concrete block or is it meadows allowed to teem with the buzz of life? “Do you really believe you are an animal?” Gary Snyder asks. Right now, this may be the most important question we can ask ourselves.
Glimpses of Return:
- Afterculture: An Anthropology of the Future: A wicked-cool art project envisioning what a post-civilized culture might look like
- Evon Peter of Native Movement speaks at PowerShift 2007
- The College of Mythic Cartography: For thoughts and essays on discovering wild ways of living — alertness, awareness, and sensitivity to our environs.
- Anthropik’s Thirty Theses on Human Life and Civilization: thoughts on the values of the biosphere and the civilization’s inherent conflicts with these values
- Rewilding Primer in Green Anarchy Magazine
- Wildroots Collective: Some folks practicing “primitive skills” outside of Asheville, NC
- Film: Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance
- Film: (The Perhaps Too-Dated) Walkabout
- Film: What a Way To Go: Life At the End of Empire
- The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
- A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen
- Nature and Madness by Paul Shepard
- My Name Is Chellis and I’m In Recovery From Western Civilization by Chellis Glendinning
- Into the Forest by Jean Hegland