When we talk about saving the world, what world are we talking about? Not the globe itself, obviously. But also not the biological world—the world of life. The world of life, strangely enough, is not in danger (though thousands and perhaps even millions of species are). Even at our worst and most destructive, we would be unable to render this planet lifeless. At present it's estimated that as many as two hundred species a day are becoming extinct, thanks to us. If we continue to kill off our neighbors at this rate, there will inevitably come a day when one of those two hundred species is our own.
Saving the world also can't mean preserving the world as it is right now. That may sound like a nice idea, but it's also out of reach. Even if the entire human race vanished tomorrow, the world wouldn't stay the way it is today. We will never, under any circumstances, be able to stop change on this planet.
But if saving the world doesn't mean saving the world of life or preserving it unchanged, what are we talking about? Saving the world can only mean one thing: saving the world as a human habitat. Accomplishing this will mean (must mean) saving the world as a habitat for as many other species as possible. We can only save the world as a human habitat if we stop our catastrophic onslaught on the community of life, for we depend on that community for our very lives.
In my novel The Story of B, the middle volume of the trilogy that begins with Ishmael and ends with My Ishmael, I wrote, "If the world is saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all." I'm afraid this is a case where the words are all easy, but the thoughts are slippery. I'll rephrase it. If we go on as we are, we're not going to be around for much longer—a few decades, a century at most. If we're still around a thousand years from now, it will be because we stopped going on as we are.
How will that have come about? How are we going to stop going on this way?
Here's how old minds think of stopping us. They think of stopping us the way they stopped poverty, the way they stopped drug abuse, the way they stopped crime. With programs. Programs are sticks planted in the mud of a river to impede its flow. The sticks do impede the flow. A little. But they never stop the flow, and they never turn the river aside.
This is why I can confidently predict that if the world is saved, it will not be because some old minds came up with some new programs. Programs never stop the things they're launched to stop. No program has ever stopped poverty, drug abuse, or crime, and no program ever will stop them.
And no program will ever stop us from devastating the world.
If the world is saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all.
Why not new minds with new programs? Because where you find people working on programs, you don't find new minds, you find old ones. Programs and old minds go together like buggy whips and buggies.
The river I mentioned earlier is the river of vision. Our culture's river of vision is carrying us toward catastrophe. Sticks planted in the mud may impede the flow of the river, but we don't need to impede its flow, we need to divert it into an entirely new channel. If our culture's river of vision ever begins to carry us away from catastrophe and into a sustainable future, then programs will be superfluous. When the river's flowing where you want it to flow, you don't plant sticks to impede it.
Programs make it possible to look busy and purposeful while failing. If programs actually did the things people expect them to do, then human society would be heaven: our governments would work, our schools would work, our law enforcement systems would work, our justice systems would work, our penal systems would work, and so on.
When programs fail (as they invariably do), this is blamed on things like poor design, lack of funds and staff, bad management, and inadequate training. When programs fail, look for them to be replaced by new ones with improved design, increased funding and staff, superior management, and better training. When these new programs fail (as they invariably do), this is blamed on poor design, lack of funds and staff, bad management, and inadequate training.
This is why we spend more and more on our failures every year. Most people accept this willingly enough, because they know they're getting more every year: bigger budgets, more laws, more police, more prisons—more of everything that didn't work last year or the year before that or the year before that.
This is an extended excerpt from Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure by Daniel Quinn, parts 1-4. Read more here or you can check your local bookstore to buy a print copy.
This is an extended excerpt from Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure by Daniel Quinn, parts 1-4. Read more here or you can check your local bookstore to buy a print copy.
A man was found sitting in the middle of the desert in a contraption made of rocks, bits of lumber, and old, blown tires, which he was busily "steering" as if it were actually a vehicle in motion.
Asked what he was doing, the man said, "Driving home."
"You're never going to get there in this," he was told.
He said, "If not in this, then in what?"
We're like this man, busily trying to steer into the future in a Rube Goldberg assemblage of programs that has never taken us any farther than this man's pile of junk took him. Even after we've acknowledged that programs don't work and never have worked, however, it still somehow seems natural to ask, "If not programs, then what?"
I'd like to recast the question this way: "If programs don't work, then what does work?" In fact, I have an even better way of asking the question: "What works so well that programs are superfluous? What works so well that it never occurs to anyone to create programs to make it work?"
The answer to all these questions is: vision.
When things work, the forces that make them work are invisible. The universe at large is a notorious example of this. It took a towering genius to recognize the laws of motion and universal gravitation that now seems almost boringly obvious to us. Newton's genius was precisely the genius of seeing that which is so evident as to be unseeable. Every advance in science makes manifest a working that is cloaked by its very success.
The dancer's admonition is Never let them see you sweat. When it comes to the laws of the universe, this admonition becomes Never let them see you at all: make them deduce your existence. And indeed the laws of the universe are never directly observable, so we have no other way of discovering them except by deduction.
What works in the living community is similarly cloaked by its success. The basic laws of ecology have the beauty and simplicity of a fairy tale, but their existence only began to be suspected a century ago.
People are fascinated to learn why a pride of lions works, why a troop of baboons works, or why a flock of geese works, but they often resist learning why a tribe of humans works. Tribal humans were successful on this planet for three million years before our agricultural revolution, and they're no less successful today wherever they manage to survive untouched, but many people of our culture don't want to hear about it. In fact, they'll vigorously deny it. If you explain to them why a herd of elephants works or why a hive of bees works, they have no problem. But if you try to explain why a tribe of humans works, they accuse you of "idealizing" them. From the point of view of ethology or evolutionary biology, however, the success of humans in tribes is no more an idealization than the success of bison in herds or whales in pods.
Our cultural excuse for failure is that humans are just "naturally" flawed—greedy, selfish, short-sighted, violent, and so on, which means anything you do with them will fail. In order to validate that excuse, people want tribalism to be a failure. For this reason, to people who want to uphold our cultural mythology, any suggestion that tribalism was successful is perceived as a threat.
Making tribal success visible is the work of my other books and will not be repeated here.
Our culture has been conspicuously successful, in the sense that it has overrun the world. For most of our history, this success was perceived as merely an inevitability, the working out of human destiny. People no more wondered about it than they wondered about gravity. When Europeans "discovered" the New World, they considered it a sacred duty to take it over. The people who were already living there were just in the way, like trees or rocks or wild animals. They had no real business being there, as we did. For us to take over this hemisphere was just part of the larger plan (presumably God's plan) for us to take over the entire world.
That we were able to overrun this hemisphere (and indeed the entire world) came as no surprise to us. This is simply what was meant to be, so naturally it came to be. No one is amazed when clouds produce rain.
Before Newton, people didn't wonder why unsupported objects are compelled to fall to the ground. They just figured, what else could they do? They have to fall to the ground, and that's that. Our historians have always been in the same condition when it comes to our tremendous cultural success. They don't wonder why we were compelled to take over the world. They just figure, what else could we have done? We had to take over the world, and that's that.
Vision is to culture what gravity is to matter. When you see a ball roll off a table and fall to the floor, you should think, "Gravity is at work here." When you see a culture make its appearance and spread outward in all directions until it takes over the entire world, you should think, "Vision is at work here."
When you see a small group of people begin behaving in a special way that subsequently spreads across an entire continent, you should think, "Vision is at work here." If I tell you that the small group I have in mind were followers of a first-century preacher named Paul and that the continent was Europe, you'll know the vision was Christianity.
Dozens or perhaps even hundreds of books have investigated the reasons for Christianity's success, but not one of them was written before the nineteenth century. Before the nineteenth century it seemed to everyone that Christianity no more needed reasons to succeed than gravity does. It was bound to succeed. Its success was sponsored by destiny.
For exactly the same reason, no one has ever written a book investigating the reasons for the success of the Industrial Revolution. It's perfectly obvious to us that the Industrial Revolution was bound to succeed. It could no more have failed than a ball rolling off a table could fall toward the ceiling.
That's the power of vision.
Every vision is self-spreading, but not every vision spreads itself in the same way. In a sense, the spreading mechanism is the vision.
Our culture's spreading mechanism was population expansion: Grow, then get more land, increase food production, and grow some more. Christianity's spreading mechanism was conversion: Accept Jesus, then get others to accept him. The Industrial Revolution's spreading mechanism was improvement: Improve on something, then put it out therefor others to improve on.
Clearly all spreading mechanisms have one thing in common: they confer benefits on those who do the spreading. Those who get more land, increase food production, and grow are rewarded with riches and power. Those who accept Jesus and get others to accept him are rewarded with heaven. Those who improve on something and put it out there for others to improve on are rewarded with respect, fame, and wealth. The benefit conferred shouldn't, however, be confused with the mechanism itself. Our culture wasn't spread by people becoming rich and powerful, Christianity wasn't spread by people going to heaven, and the Industrial Revolution wasn't spread by people winning respect, fame, and wealth.
When a chemist puts water in a test tube and adds salt, an angel comes along and dissolves the salt into charged particles called ions. Because we perceive the universe to be self-governing according to internally consistent and comprehensible principles, the angel in this story seems completely superfluous to us. We therefore cut it away with Occam's razor.
Although historians now look for the reasons behind Christianity's success, they aren't looking for programs. Christianity thrived in the Roman world because the people of that time were ready for it, and historians would no more expect to find programs at work there "promoting" Christianity than chemists would expect to find angels at work in their test tubes. (It might be argued that Constantine's Edict of Milan, allowing Christians freedom of worship, was a program of support, but in fact it merely permitted what two and a half centuries of persecution had been unable to stop, much as the twenty-first amendment to the U.S. Constitution merely permitted what fourteen years of Prohibition had been unable to stop.)
In the same way, the spread of our culture has never had to be kept going by any program. It has never flagged for a single instant, and the same can be said of the Industrial Revolution.
When the river of vision begins to carry people in a direction they don't like, they start planting sticks to impede its flow. These are the sticks I call programs.
Most programs take this form: Outlaw the thing that's bothering you, catch people who do it, and put them in jail.
The fact that programs of this sort invariably fail doesn't trouble most people.
Every year, without fail, we outlaw more things, catch more people doing them, and put more of them in jail. The outlawed behavior never goes away, because, directly or indirectly, it's supported by the strong, invisible, unrelenting force called vision. This explains why police officers are much more likely to take up crime than criminals are to take up law enforcement. It's called "going with the flow."
When someone has received life-threatening injuries in a car accident, the medics in the ambulance do whatever they can to keep him alive till they reach a hospital. This first aid is essential but ultimately inadequate, as everyone knows. If there's no hospital at the end of the road, the patient will die, because the ambulance just doesn't have the resources a hospital does.
The same is true of programs. There are many programs in place today that are staving off our death—programs to protect the environment from becoming even more degraded than it is. Like the first aid in the ambulance, these programs are essential but ultimately inadequate. They're ultimately inadequate because they're essentially reactive. Like the medics in the ambulance, they can't make good things happen, they only make bad things less bad. They don't bring into being something good, they only drag their feet against something bad.
If there's no hospital at the end of the road, the patient in the ambulance will die, because first aid (useful as it is) just doesn't have the capacity to keep him alive indefinitely. If there's no new vision for us at the end of the road, then we too are going to die, because programs (useful as they are) just don't have the capacity to keep us alive indefinitely.
Once, in the land of broken legs, the inhabitants heard rumors of another land far away where people moved around freely, because no one's legs were broken. They scoffed at these tales, saying, "How could anyone get around without crutches?"
To say that the Industrial Revolution is a terrific example of what people can do without programs is an understatement. It's a mind-boggling example. From the time Giambattista della Porta dreamed up the first "modern" steam engine nearly four hundred years ago to the present, this vast, world-transforming movement has been carried forward by vision alone: Improve on something then put it out therefor others to improve on. Not a single program was ever needed to forward the Industrial Revolution. Rather it was forwarded by the confident realization in millions of minds that even a small new idea, even a modest innovation or improvement over some previous invention could improve their lives almost beyond imagination. Over a few brief centuries, millions of ordinary citizens, acting almost entirely from motives of self-interest, have transformed the human world by broadcasting ideas and discoveries and furthering these ideas and discoveries by taking them step by step to new ideas and discoveries. To acknowledge all this is not to make the Industrial Revolution a blessed event—but neither does condemning it as a catastrophe make it less than the greatest outpouring of creativity in human history.
No paradigm is ever able to imagine the next one. It's almost impossible for one paradigm to imagine that there will even be a next one. The people of the Middle Ages didn't think of themselves as being in the "middle" of anything at all. As far as they were concerned, the way they were living was the way people would be living till the end of time. Even if you'd managed to persuade them that a new era was just around the corner, they would've been unable to tell you a single thing about it—and in particular they wouldn't have been able to tell you what was going to make it new. If they'd been able to describe the Renaissance in the fourteenth century, it would have been the Renaissance.
We're no different. For all our blather of new paradigms and emerging paradigms, it's an unassailable assumption among us that our distant descendants will be just exactly like us. Their gadgets, fashions, music, and so on, will surely be different, but we're confident that their mindset will be identical—because we can imagine no other mindset for people to have. But in fact, if we actually manage to survive here, it will be because we've moved into a new era as different from ours as the Renaissance was from the Middle Ages— and as unimaginable to us as the Renaissance was to the Middle Ages.
We can do it the way it's always done: one meme at a time. I'm aware this statement needs explaining. The best would be for you to read Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene but in case this isn't convenient for you right this second, I'll summarize. Briefly, memes are to cultures what genes are to bodies.
Your body is a collection of cells. Every cell in your body contains a complete set of all your genes, which Dawkins likens to a set of building plans for a human body—and your body in particular. At conception, you were a single cell—a single set of the building plans for your body, one half of the set received from your mother and the other half received from your father. This one cell subsequently divided into two cells, each containing the complete set of building plans for your body. These two subsequently divided into four, the four into eight, the eight into sixteen, and so on—each containing the complete set of building plans for your body.
A culture is also a collection of cells, which are individual humans. You (and each of your parents and all your siblings and friends) contain a complete set of memes, which are the conceptual building plans for our culture. Dawkins coined the word meme (rhymes with theme) to apply to what he perceived to be the cultural equivalent of the gene.
Dawkins suggests that memes replicate themselves in the "meme pool" (the thing I call culture) in a way that is analogous to the way genes replicate themselves in the gene pool. That is, they leap from mind to mind the way genes leap from body to body. Genes leap from body to body by way of reproduction. Memes leap from mind to mind by way of communication: in lullabies heard in the cradle, in fairy tales, in parents' table conversation, in jokes, in television cartoons, in the funnies, in sermons, in gossip, in lectures, in textbooks, in movies, in novels, in newspapers, in song lyrics, in advertisements, and so on.
A great deal of ink (real and virtual) has been spilled over Dawkins's memes. Some authorities have dismissed them as nonexistent or as nonsense. Others have gone so far as to wonder if memes exist in brains in as physical a sense as dendrites or glia cells. I leave them to it.
Every culture is a collection of individuals, and each individual has in his or her head a complete set of values, concepts, rules, and preferences that, taken together, constitute the building plans for that particular culture. Whether you call them memes or marglefarbs is irrelevant. There can be no question whatever that they exist.
Unless you happen to be a geneticist, you'll probably be surprised to learn that we differ from chimpanzees by only a very small percentage of genes. We expect it to be the other way around. We're so manifestly different from chimpanzees that we expect there to be a vast genetic gulf between us. Obviously the genes we don't share must in some way "make all the difference." But it would be a mistake to think that, without these genes, humans would be chimpanzees—or that, with these genes, chimpanzees would be humans. Humans aren't just chimpanzees with extra genes, nor are chimpanzees just humans with missing genes. Nothing in the world of genetics (or any other world, for that matter) is ever that simple.
Only a very small percentage of memes differentiated the Renaissance from the Middle Ages, but obviously the new ones made all the difference." The authority of the Church waned, new humanist ideals emerged, the development of the printing press gave people new ideas about what they could know and think about, and so on. To produce the Renaissance, it wasn't necessary to change out ninety percent of the memes of the Middle Ages—or eighty or sixty or thirty or even twenty. And the new memes didn't have to come into play all at once. Indeed, they couldn't have come into play all at once. The Renaissance was ready for Andrea del Verrocchio long before it was ready for Martin Luther.
its question is a lot easier to answer than might be expected. The memes we need to change are the lethal ones.
Richard Dawkins puts it with irreducible simplicity: "A lethal gene is one that kills its possessor." It may well strike you as unfair and somehow unreasonable for such things as lethal genes even to exist. You may also wonder how lethal genes manage to remain in the gene pool at all. If they kill their possessors, why aren't they eliminated? The answer is that genes don't all come into play at the same time. Most genes, obviously, begin work during the fetal stage, when the body is being built. Some, just as obviously, are dormant until the onset of adolescence. Lethal genes that come into play before adolescence are of course quickly eliminated from the gene pool, because their possessors are unable to pass them on by reproduction. Lethal genes that come into play early in adolescence also tend to be eliminated, but those that come into play in middle or old age remain in the gene pool, because their possessors are almost always able to pass them on through reproduction before succumbing to their lethal effect.
A lethal meme is one that kills its possessor. For example, the Heaven's Gate cultists possessed a lethal meme that made suicide irresistibly attractive to them—but I'm not much interested in memes that are lethal to individuals. I'm interested in memes that are lethal to cultures (and to our culture in particular).
Lethal genes don't start out as benign and then later become lethal. Rather, they start out as having no effect or another effect, which only later becomes lethal. The same is true of lethal memes. Early Semitic witnesses to our cultural beginnings saw that their neighbors had plucked some memes from the gods' own tree of wisdom. They said, "Our neighbors to the north have got the idea they should rule the world. This meme is benign in the gods but deadly in humans." Their prediction was accurate, but it didn't come true immediately. The memes that made us the rulers of the world are lethal, but they didn't have a lethal effect ten thousand years ago—or five thousand or two thousand. They were at work, turning us into the rulers of the world, but their deadliness didn't become evident until this century, when they began turning us into the devastators of the world.
Ridding ourselves of those memes is a matter of life and death, but it can be done. I know this because it has been done—by others. Many times.
Each of us is a mixture of genes received from our mother and father, and of course our mother and father are mixtures of genes received from their mothers and fathers. Knowing this, we tend to think of our genes as things that keep us going, generation after generation. But here's a picture that's closer to reality: If genes could think, they would think of us as what keeps them going, generation after generation.
I say this is closer to reality because in fact we don't survive as individuals, but our genes do. You and I, like all other living creatures, are temporary mobile homes for the genes we received from our parents, and our job (from our genes' point of view) is to make sure we give those genes a home in the next generation—in our children, of course. As far as our genes are concerned, when an individual unit of temporary housing has no more reproductive value, it's ready for recycling. This should show you clearly enough what's what around here. We tend to think of ourselves as the VIPs of the earth, the bosses and big shots, but in fact we're just the disposable vehicles in which our genes are riding to immortality. "Survival machines for genes" is the name Richard Dawkins gives these disposable vehicles.
In the same way, we're the disposable vehicles in which our memes are riding to immortality. These memes come to us from all the speakers who are vocal wherever we happen to grow up—parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, teachers, preachers, bosses, co-workers, and everyone involved in producing things like textbooks, novels, comic books, movies, television shows, newspapers, magazines, internet sites, and so on. All these people are constantly repeating to each other (and of course their children, their students, their employees, and so on) the memes they've received during their lifetime. All these voices taken together constitute the voice of Mother Culture.
In case it needs saying, the immortality I'm talking about here isn't absolute. Our genes will not survive the death of our planet, a few billion years hence, and our memes have a much shorter life expectancy than that.
Let's say you've created a one-page document on your computer and printed it out. If you make a xerographic copy of this original on a good machine, you'll have a hard time telling the original from the copy, which we'll call A. But if you use A to make another copy, B, and then use B to make C and then use C to make D and then use D to make E, this last copy will be easily distinguishable from the original. This makes it evident that a little bit of the original was lost in each copying generation. Between one generation and the next, no loss is visible to the naked eye, but a build-up of losses is clearly visible between the original and copy E. This happens because you used an analog copier.
But if you go back to the document in your computer and copy what's on the screen as file A, then copy file A as file B, then copy file B as file C, and so on, you could go on making copies of this document all day, one after another, and at the end of the day it's very likely that no difference would be detectable between the original and the very last copy. This happens because you used a digital copier rather than an analog copier. This fidelity of copying is the very foundation of the digital revolution.
Genes replicate themselves with the same sort of astounding fidelity—but the same can't be said of memes unless we add some qualifications. Among tribal peoples living undisturbed (as, for example, in the New World before the European incursion), the transmission of memes from generation to generation generally takes place with virtually perfect fidelity. This is why they perceive themselves to have been living this way "from the beginning of time." To us, therefore, tribal cultures seem static (a word that carries for us a whiff of the pejorative) in comparison with our own culture, which seems dynamic (a word that carries for us a whiff of the admirable).
Our culture is dynamic (as we perceive it) because our memes are often very volatile: newborn in one generation, swaggering with power in the next, doddering in the next, and laughably old-fashioned in the next. Nonetheless, there is a central core of culturally fundamental memes that we've been transmitting with total fidelity from the foundation of our culture ten thousand years ago to the present moment. Identifying this core of fundamental memes isn't very difficult, and it would have been done long ago if someone had thought of it.
One of these fundamental memes is Growing all your own food is the best way to live. Apart from a few anthropologists (who know perfectly well that this is a matter of opinion), this meme goes unchallenged in our culture. And when I say that a few anthropologists know this is a matter of opinion, I mean they know it chiefly as a professional obligation. As anthropologists, they know that the Bushmen of Africa wouldn't agree that growing all your food is the best way to live, nor would the Yanomami of Brazil or the Alawa of Australia or the Gebusi of New Guinea. As individuals, however, these anthropologists would almost universally consider this to be the best way to live and would unhesitatingly choose it for themselves above all others. Outside this profession, it would be hard to find anyone in our culture who doesn't subscribe to the belief that deriving all your food from agriculture is the best way to live.
It's impossible to doubt that this meme entered our culture at the very moment of its birth. We wouldn't have become full-time farmers unless we believed it was the best way to live. On the contrary, it's self-evident that we began to grow all our food for precisely the same reason we still grow all our food—because we were convinced this was the best way to live.
Or . . .
It's tempting to imagine that agriculture represents the path of least resistance for people trying to make a living, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Growing your own food represents the path of greatest resistance, and the more of it you grow, the greater the resistance. It's been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is an exact correlation between how hard you have to work to stay alive and how great your dependence on agriculture is. Those who grow the least also work the least, and those who grow the most also work the most. The amount of energy it takes to put three ounces of corn in a can of water on your supermarket shelf is almost beyond belief, as is the amount of time you must work in order to possess those three ounces of corn.
No, the founders of our culture didn't just fall into a lifestyle of total dependence on agriculture, they had to whip themselves into it, and the whip they used was this meme: Growing all your own food is the best way to live.
Nothing less could imaginably have done this amazing trick.
A hunter-gatherer who needs 2,000 calories a day to live has to expend only 400 calories to get them, because that's the rate at which hunting and gathering pays off—1 calorie of work gets you 5 calories of food. By contrast, a farmer who needs 2,000 calories a day to live has to expend 1,000 calories to get them, because that's the rate at which farming pays off—1 calorie of work gets you 2 calories of food.
For a food-hungry person to trade hunting-gathering for farming is like a money-hungry person trading a job that pays five dollars an hour for one that pays two dollars an hour. It makes utterly no sense, and the hungrier you are, the less sense it makes.
Farming is less efficient at banishing hunger than hunting and gathering, but it unquestionably confers other benefits (most notably, providing a base for settlement and eventually civilization), and it was to secure these benefits that the founders of our culture ultimately adopted a lifestyle of total dependence on agriculture. From that point, it became a matter of complete conviction among us that growing all your food is the best way to live. We had invested in that meme and in the future would protect that investment at any cost.
We weren't the only people in ancient times to recognize the benefits of growing all our food. Among the notable adopters of this meme in the New World were the Maya, the Olmec, the people of Teotihuacan, the Hohokam, the Anasazi, the Aztecs, and the Inca.
What's significant for our study of this most fundamental meme is that, by the time Europeans arrived in the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, only the latest of these civilizations, the Aztec and the Incan, were still clinging to it.
The Maya probably became full-time agriculturalists not long after we did, but (like us) they didn't begin to look like civilization-builders for several thousand years. Their first great cities in Yucatan began to emerge around 2000 B.C.E., coincident with the founding of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and actually ahead of the founding of Babylonia by some two centuries.
The Maya flourished for nearly three thousand years. Then at the beginning of the ninth century of the common era, the cities of the south suddenly began to be abandoned and before long were left standing empty. The cities of the north continued to flourish for a time under the domination of the Toltec but collapsed when the Toltec themselves collapsed in the thirteenth century. Mayapan, to the west, then emerged as the last great stronghold of Maya civilization, but this remnant was itself only another two centuries away from collapse.
This is, by design, the sort of account you'd find in an ordinary encyclopedia or historical atlas. Although it begins by talking about people, it immediately becomes the tale of something else, something like a vast ocean liner steaming through time. It carries passengers, to be sure, but these are mere ballast, necessary only in the sense that without them the ship must immediately go bottom-up and sink.
The Olmec agriculturalists of coastal Veracruz and Tabasco built great ceremonial centers, principally at San Lorenzo and La Venta. San Lorenzo, the oldest, flourished from 1200 B.C.E. to 900 B.C.E., when (as it's said) it "was defaced and abandoned." The very same thing happened at La Venta five centuries later. Lesser sites continued to be occupied for a time, but the destruction of La Venta marked the end of Olmec dominance in the area.
Some two hundred years later one of the great cities of the ancient world began to be built in central Mexico. Teotihuacan was destined to become the world's sixth largest city by 500 C.E. For two hundred and fifty years it flourished as the center of its own empire, then abruptly the usual happened. It "was destroyed"—burned and perhaps even "ritually" wiped out. The ruins were occupied for a time, but the city was dead.
The people who occupied the desert lands of southern Arizona from about the time of Christ strike us as being hard workers rather than civilization-builders. Their memorable undertakings, beginning around 700 C.E., were not cities but vast networks of irrigation ditches that enabled them to grow all their own food. Single ditches, as much as 25 feet wide and 15 deep, could extend as far as 16 miles, and one network along the Salt River connected 150 miles of ditches. The work began to be abandoned at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and within decades the workers became the Hohokam—"Those Who Vanished," in the language of the Pima Indians of the area.
The Anasazi occupied the Four Corners region, where modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet. They flourished only briefly, beginning around 900 C.E., and built no great cities, but achieved a striking lifestyle in small towns and high-rise cliff dwellings. It was all abandoned soon after 1300.
In writing these capsule histories, I've followed the popular model for such accounts, starting in the active voice, with people doing things, and ending in the passive voice, with things being done— to "sites" or "cities" or "civilizations." The end always comes when sites are "abandoned," "destroyed," "defaced," "burned," or "desecrated"—one never learns by whom. One is left with a vague impression of mystery; as if these things had happened in the Bermuda Triangle or the Twilight Zone.
The authors of these accounts are clearly uneasy with the truth, which is that these civilizations were all destroyed and abandoned by the very people who built them. The Maya walked away from their cities under their own steam—they weren't whisked away in flying saucers. The Olmec themselves defaced and abandoned San Lorenzo and La Venta, and Teotihuacan was torched by its own citizens. One day the ditch-tenders of southern Arizona downed tools and walked away, and on another day the villagers and cliff-dwellers of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde did the same.
All these peoples did something even more outrageous that is almost never alluded to in accounts of this kind. It was bad enough that they abandoned their civilizations, but what they did next is almost unthinkable: they stopped farming. They stopped growing all their own food.
They gave up the very best way of living there is.
In a very real sense, they all deserve to be called Hohokam, these strange peoples who slipped out of their magnificent robes, put aside the tools they'd used to create immortal works of art, trashed their plans for temples and pyramids, discarded literacy, mathematics, and the most advanced calendars in the world, consigned to oblivion elaborate state religions and whole political systems . . . and melted away into whatever landscape was at hand—tropical jungles, lush plains, or high deserts. Of course, none of them actually vanished. They just took up less conspicuous ways of making a living, either by foraging or by some mixture of foraging and farming.
But any way you cut it, they deliberately threw over what we think to be the very best lifestyle in the world for something inferior. They knew what they were doing, and they did it anyway . . . again and again and again. Naturally there are explanations. Inexplicable behavior can't be allowed to remain inexplicable. Anthropologist Jeremy A. Sabloff notes that dozens of hypotheses have been put forward to explain the Mayan collapse, "including overuse of the soil, earthquakes, hurricanes, climatic changes, diseases, insect pests, peasant revolts, and invasions," and the Maya are no exception. The same and other hypotheses have been advanced to explain all the other collapses. They all have something in common, as Professor Sabloff neatly concludes: "None of these explanations has proved to be totally satisfactory."
No such explanation will ever be satisfactory, because we all know these things:
It couldn't have been things like this that made these people quit, because look at us. These things are mere inconveniences compared to what we've faced—all these things, plus much worse: famines, wars of every kind, inquisitions, government by torture and assassination, endlessly rising crime, corruption, tyranny, madness, revolution, genocide, racism, social injustice, mass poverty, poisoned water, polluted air, two devastating world wars, and the prospect of nuclear holocaust, biological warfare, and extinction. We faced all that and more—and never once have been tempted to abandon our civilization.
There had to be something else at work—or missing—among these people. And indeed there was something else.
Two guys on an airplane. One falls out, then a moment later so does the other. The first guy splatters on the ground like a ripe tomato. The second lands on his feet and walks away. It's obvious that the second had something the first didn't, and what he had is also obvious: a parachute.
Two guys face a gunman. One takes a bullet in the chest and falls dead. The other takes a bullet in the chest, then calmly fires back, shooting the gunman dead. Again it's obvious that the second one had something the first didn't, and what he had is also obvious: body armor.
Two civilizations. One goes along for a while, then maybe something bad happens (or maybe not) and suddenly everyone just walks away from it. The other civilization goes along for much longer, constantly suffering every conceivable catastrophe—but no one dreams of walking away from it for even one second.
Again it's obvious that the second civilization had something the first didn't—but exactly what it had is not so obvious.
It had a meme.
One can imagine how desperately the pontiffs, potentates, dynasts, princes, pendragons, princelings, rajahs, hierophants, priests, priestesses, and palace guards of all these tottering civilizations must have desired to implant in the minds of their vacillating subjects this very simple concept: Civilization must continue at ANY cost and must not be abandoned under ANY circumstance.
It goes without saying, however, that implanting alone isn't enough. To take effect, a meme must be accepted without question. You can't talk people into accepting an absurd idea like this one on the spur of the moment. They have to hear it from birth. It has to come to them from every direction and be buried in every communication, the way it is with us.
All these peoples started out believing that the best way to live is by growing all your own food. Why else would they become full-time farmers? They started out that way and went on that way for a long time. But then some very predictable things began to happen. For example, the Maya, the Olmec, and the people of Teotihuacan became rigidly stratified into wealthy, all-powerful elites and impoverished, powerless masses, who naturally did all the grunt work that made these civilizations magnificent. The masses will put up with this miserable life—we know that!—but they inevitably begin to get restless. We know that too.
Our history is full of underclass insurrections, revolts, rebellions, riots, and revolutions, but not a single one has ever ended with people just walking away. This is because our citizens know that civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance. So they willwill destroy everything in sight, will slaughter all the elite they can get their hands on, will burn, rape, and pillage—but they will never just walk away. go berserk,
This is why the behavior of the Maya, the Olmec and the rest is so unfathomably mysterious to our historians. For them, it seems self-evident that civilization must continue at any cost and never be abandoned under any circumstance. How, then, could the Maya, the Olmec and the others not have known it?
But this is exactly what was missing in the minds of these peoples. When they no longer liked what they were building, they were able to walk away from it, because they didn't have the idea that it must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance.
This meme makes the same difference between them and us as the parachute makes between the two guys falling from the plane or the body armor makes between the two guys facing the gunman.
There's no evidence that the Hohokam and the Anasazi had become divided into all-powerful upperclasses and powerless underclasses. But there is some evidence that the Hohokam were leaning in that direction. Platform mounds in the Mesoamerican style (built by whom if not an emerging underclass?) were beginning to show up here and there, as were leisure-class ball courts (built for whom if not an emerging upperclass?). The Anasazi experiment was the briefest of all the ones I've examined here and the least highly developed as a civilization (if it merits that name at all). Regardless, the same is true for all. When, for whatever reason, they no longer liked what they were building, they were able to walk away from it, because they didn't have the idea that it must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance.
I've mentioned (but not discussed) the other two great civilizations of the New World, the Incan and the Aztec. Their early and middle development followed lines laid down by the Maya and Olmec, but their ending was not in their own hands, since they were destroyed by invading Spanish armies in the sixteenth century. Obviously it's impossible to know how they might have gone on if left to their own devices, but my guess is that (lacking that critical meme) they would ultimately have followed the example of all the others.
To us, the meme Civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance seems intrinsic to the human mind—self-evident, like The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. A mind that doesn't possess that meme hardly seems human to us.
We imagine humanity was born with this meme in its head. Homo habilis knew he should be civilized but didn't have the brains to do it. Homo erectus knew he should be civilized but didn't have the skills to do it. Homo sapiens knew he should be civilized but couldn't figure out what it takes. Homo sapiens sapiens knew he should be civilized, had the brains and the skills to do it, and got down to it as soon as he figured out that agriculture is what it takes. Naturally he knew it must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance.
What, therefore, was wrong with all these New World civilization- builders? It's hard for us to get over the idea that there was something very mysterious about them. They knew (because it's self-evident) that civilization must not be abandoned under any circumstance—but they abandoned it anyway.
This is an example of the Cultural Fallacy, which is: The memes of our culture arise from the very structure of the human mind itself, and if you don't have them, there must be something wrong with you.
Naturally this too is a meme.
The first mystery of the New World civilization-builders is easy to discern, because it manifests itself as something they did: they destroyed what they built. The second mystery is less easy to discern, because it only manifests itself as something they didn't do: they didn't overrun the world.
At the height of their development, the Maya occupied an area no larger than Arizona. By the time we reached the same height of development, we occupied all the Middle East and Europe and much of India and Southeast Asia. There was no one around equipped to oppose a Mayan advance north or south of their homeland in Yucatan and Guatemala, had they chosen to make it. They might have civilized the entire hemisphere in the thousands of years they had—had they chosen to do it. Oddly, mysteriously, they didn't choose to do it.
The Olmec were content to occupy a homeland smaller than Connecticut, and had the metropolis Teotihuacan been built in the center of Los Angeles, its imperial reach would have fallen well short of the city limits.
What was wrong with these people? What did they lack that we had?
Go ahead, guess.
Unlike the soldiers who preceded them, the settlers of the New World didn't come dragging their national borders behind them. Rather, they came dragging a common cultural border behind them. Behind this border, people from Europe, the Near East, and the Far East could settle down comfortably side by side, because they were cultural siblings. Whether they came from England, China, Turkey, Russia, Ireland, Egypt, Thailand, or Denmark, they were vastly more like each other than they were like the savages on the other side of that border. (And, naturally, they didn't go slave hunting except on the other side of that border.)
This wasn't special to the New World. It was this way from the beginning. The border that rippled outward in all directions from the Fertile Crescent wasn't a national border, it was a cultural one. It wasn't soldiers who conquered the Old World, it was farmers, who taught their neighbors, who taught their neighbors, who taught their neighbors, taking the message outward in a circle ever-widening until it enclosed all but the undiscovered New World on the other side of the planet.
The meme we brought with us to the New World was nothing new. We'd been spreading it from the beginning: Ours is the one RIGHT way for people to live and everyone should live like us. Possessing this meme, we made ourselves cultural missionaries to the world, and, lacking this meme, the Maya, the Olmec, and the others did not.
When Columbus set off westward across the Atlantic, he wasn't looking for an empty continent to colonize, he was looking for a trade route to the Orient. And if he'd actually bumped into Asia instead of America, the people of Europe would have said to themselves, "Let's go do some business with these Orientals." No one would have dreamed of saying, "Let's go over there, drive off the Orientals, and take Asia for ourselves."
But of course Columbus didn't bump into Asia, he bumped into America, which, as he saw it, was unoccupied (aside from a few savages). When the people of Europe heard this, they didn't say to themselves, "Let's go do some business with those savages." They said to themselves, "Let's go over there, drive off the savages, and take America for ourselves." This wasn't rapacity but rather sacred duty. When a farmer clears a field and puts it to the plow, he doesn't think of himself as taking that field away from all the wildlife that makes its home there. He isn't stealing it, he's putting it to the use God intended from the beginning. Before being cultivated, this land was merely going to waste. And that's how the settlers saw the New World. The natives were letting it all go to waste, and by taking it away from them and putting it to the plow, they were performing holy work.
The New World fell not to a sword but to a meme.
The worker hordes who built the pyramids of Mesoamerica were not more miserable than the ones who built the pyramids of Egypt. The workers of Mesoamerica merely perceived themselves as having an alternative to misery, which they eventually exercised (by walking away). We didn't, so we slogged on, building a ziggurat here, a Great Wall there, a bastille here, a Maginot Line there—and on and on and on—to the present moment, when our pyramids are not being built at Giza or Saqqara but rather at Exxon and Du Pont and Coca Cola and Proctor & Gamble and McDonald's.
I visit many classrooms, and the students one way or another always bring me round to a point where I ask how many of them are champing
at the bit to get out there and start working on the pyramids their parents worked on throughout their lives and their parents before them. The question makes them uneasy, because they know they're supposed to be absolutely thrilled at the prospect of going out there to flip burgers and pump gas and stock shelves in the real world. Everyone's told them they're the luckiest kids on earth— parents, teachers, textbooks—and they feel disloyal not waving their hands at me. But they don't.
It took Khufu twenty-three years to build his Great Pyramid at Giza, where some eleven hundred stone blocks, each weighing about two and a half tons, had to be quarried, moved, and set in place every day during the annual building season, roughly four months long. Few commentators on these facts can resist noting that this achievement is an amazing testimonial to the pharaoh's iron control over the workers of Egypt. I submit, on the contrary, that pharaoh Khufu needed to exercise no more control over his workers at Giza than pharaoh Bill Gates exercises over his workers at Microsoft. I submit that Egyptian workers, relatively speaking, got as much out of building Khufu's pyramid as Microsoft workers will get out of building Bill Gates's pyramid (which will surely dwarf Khufu's a hundred times over, though it will not, of course, be built of stone).
No special control is needed to make people into pyramid builders—if they see themselves as having no choice but to build pyramids. They'll build whatever they're told to build, whether it's pyramids, parking garages, or computer programs.
Karl Marx recognized that workers without a choice are workers in chains. But his idea of breaking chains was for us to depose the pharaohs and then build the pyramids for ourselves, as if building pyramids is something we just can't stop doing, we love it so much.
The meme is as strong today among us as it was among the stone-draggers of ancient Egypt: Civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance. We're making the world uninhabitable to our own species and rushing headlong toward extinction, but Civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance.
This meme wasn't lethal to pharaonic Egypt or to Han China or to medieval Europe, but it's lethal to us. It's literally us or that meme. One of us has to go—and soon.
But . . . But surely, Mr. Quinn, you're not suggesting we go back to living in caves and catching dinner on the end of a spear?
I've never suggested such a thing or come anywhere close to suggesting such a thing. Given the realities of our situation, going back to the hunting-gathering life is as silly an idea as sprouting wings and flying off to heaven. We can walk away from the pyramid, but we can't melt away into the jungle. The Mayan solution is utterly gone for us, for the simple reason that the jungle itself is gone and there are six billion of us. Forget about going back. There is no back. Back is gone.
But we can still walk away from the pyramid.
If, having walked away from the pyramid, we can't melt into the jungle, what on earth can we do? Here's how the gorilla sage of Ishmael answered that question: "You pride yourselves on being inventive, don't you? Well, invent." Not surprisingly, his pupil shrugged this off as a nonanswer—and I'm sure most readers did the same. They did this because in our meme about civilization there's another meme that is implicit: Civilization is humanity's ULTIMATE invention and can never be surpassed. That's precisely why it must be carried forward at any cost, because there cannot possibly be any invention beyond it. If we were to abandon civilization (gulp!), then we'd be finished!
If there's going to be any future for us, our first invention must be a meme-killer. We must destroy in ourselves and in the people around us the meme proclaiming civilization to be an unsurpassable invention. It is, after all, just a meme—just a notion peculiar to our culture. It isn't a law of physics, it's just something we've been taught to believe that our parents were taught to believe—as were their parents and their parents and their parents and their parents all the way back to Giza and Ur and Mohenjo-Daro and Knossos and beyond.
Since there's no better meme-killer than another meme, try this one on for size:
Something BETTER than civilization is waiting for us.
Something much better—unless you're one of those rare individuals who just loves dragging stones.
No one is surprised to learn that bees are organized in a way that works for them or that wolves are organized in a way that works for them or that whales are organized in a way that works for them. Most people understand in a general way that the social organization of any given species evolved in the same way as other features of the species. Unworkable organizations were eliminated in exactly the same way that unworkable physical traits were eliminated—by the process known as natural selection.
But there is an odd and unexamined prejudice against the idea that the very same process shaped the social organization of Homo over the three or four million years of his evolution. No one is surprised to learn that the shape of a claw or a pattern of coloration has come down to the present because it works for the possessor of that claw or pattern of coloration, but many are reluctant to entertain the idea that any human social organization could have come down to the present for the same reason.
Lifestyle (or way of life): A way of making a living for a group or individual. Hunting and gathering is a lifestyle. Growing all your own food is a lifestyle. Scavenging (for example, among vultures) is a lifestyle. Foraging (for example, among gorillas) is a lifestyle.
Social organization: A cooperative structure that helps a group implement its way of life. Termite colonies are organized into a three-caste hierarchy consisting of reproductives (king and queen), workers, and soldiers. Human hunter-gatherers are organized into tribes.
Culture: The totality of what is communicated by one generation of a people to another by means of language and example. The Yanomami of Brazil and the Bushmen of Africa have a common lifestyle (hunting and gathering) and a common social organization (tribalism) but not a common culture (except in a very general sense).
Our cultural vision was shaped by people who were perfectly satisfied with the notion that the universe they saw was in its final form, and had come into being in that form—in a single stroke, so to speak. The Genesis tale of creation didn't originate this notion, it merely affirmed it: God did his work, saw it was in no need of improvement, and that was that.
It hasn't been easy for us to give up this notion, and in fact many people unconsciously cling to it even while talking the talk of evolution. This is why the disappearance of New World civilizations seems mysterious to our historians. If their worldview were fundamentally Darwinian instead of fundamentally Aristotelian, they'd realize that what they're seeing in these disappearances is merely natural selection at work, and the aura of mystery would vanish.
During our three or four million years on this planet it can hardly be doubted that thousands of cultural experiments have been made among humans. The successes have survived—and the failures have disappeared, for the simple reason that eventually there was no one around who wanted to perpetuate them. People will (ordinarily) put up with being miserable for only so long. It's not the quitters who are extraordinary and mysterious, it's we, who have somehow managed to persuade ourselves that we must persist in our misery whatever the cost and not abandon it even in the face of calamity.
Before becoming full-time farmers, the Maya, the Olmec and all the rest practiced hunting and gathering or some combination of farming and foraging. Doesn't the fact that they eventually became full-time farmers indicate they were less than perfectly satisfied with these lifestyles? That's exactly what it indicates.
At some point the idea of making all their living from agriculture seemed more attractive than the traditional way. This doesn't necessarily mean they hated their previous life, but it certainly means they judged the agricultural life to be more promising. Very probably they didn't regard their venture into the agricultural life as an experiment at all but as a permanent, irrevocable choice. If so, this doesn't negate the role of natural selection in this process but rather underscores it. Each of these peoples began by abandoning a traditional lifestyle for an innovation that seemed to promise more of what they wanted. When the innovation ended up giving them less of what they wanted, they abandoned it to resume their previous way of living. The innovation in each case had failed the test.
But doesn't this indicate that their traditional lifestyles were less than perfect? Certainly it does. Natural selection is a process that separates the workable from the unworkable, not the perfect from the imperfect. Nothing evolution brings forth is perfect, it's just damnably hard to improve upon.
As I've said, if you note that hive life works well for bees, that troop life works well for baboons, or that pack life works well for wolves, you won't be challenged, but if you note that tribal life works well for humans, don't be surprised if you're attacked with an almost hysterical ferocity. Your attackers will never berate you for what you've said but rather for things they've invented for you to say, for example, that tribal life is "perfect" or "idyllic" or "noble" or simply "wonderful." It doesn't matter that you haven't said any of these things; they'll be as indignant as if you had.
Tribal life is not in fact perfect, idyllic, noble, or wonderful, but wherever it's found intact, it's found to be working well—as well as the life of lizards, racoons, geese, or beetles—with the result that the members of the tribe are not generally enraged, rebellious, desperate, stressed-out borderline psychotics being torn apart by crime, hatred, and violence. What anthropologists find is that tribal peoples, far from being nobler, sweeter, or wiser than us, are as capable as we are of being mean, unkind, short-sighted, selfish, insensitive, stubborn, and short-tempered. The tribal life doesn't turn people into saints; it enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress year after year, generation after generation.
After three or four million years of human evolution, what would you expect but a social organization that works? How else could Homo habilis have survived, except in a social organization that worked? How else could Homo erectus have survived, except in a social organization that worked? And if natural selection provided Homo habilis and Homo erectus with workable social organizations, why would it fail to provide Homo sapiens with one? Humans may have tried many other social organizations in those three or four million years, but if so, none of them survived. In fact, we know that humans have tried other social organizations.
The Maya tried one—and found after three thousand years that it didn't work (at least not as well as tribalism). They returned to tribalism.
The Olmec tried one—and found after three hundred years that it didn't work (at least not as well as tribalism). They returned to tribalism.
The people of Teotihuacan tried one—and found after five hundred years that it didn't work (at least not as well as tribalism). They returned to tribalism.
The Hohokam tried one—and found after a thousand years that it didn't work (at least not as well as tribalism). They returned to tribalism.
The Anasazi tried one—and found after four hundred years that it didn't work (at least not as well as tribalism). They returned to tribalism.
Not one of their experiments survived—but tribalism did. And that's what natural selection is all about.
People who dislike what I'm saying will challenge me this way: "If you're so crazy about the tribal life, why don't you get a spear and go live in a cave?"
The tribal life isn't about spears and caves or about hunting and gathering. Hunting and gathering is a lifestyle, an occupation, a way of making a living. A tribe isn't a particular occupation; it's a social organization that facilitates making a living.
Where they're still allowed to, gypsies live in tribes, but they're obviously not hunter-gatherers.
Similarly, circus people live in tribes—but again, obviously, they're not hunter-gatherers. Until recent decades there were many forms of traveling shows that were tribal in organization—theatrical troupes, carnivals, and so on.
Tribes exist for their members—and for all their members, because all are perceived as involved in the success of the tribe. When the tent goes up, there's no one in the circus more important than the construction crew. When the rigging goes up, there's no one more important than the riggers. When the show begins, there's no one more important than the performers, human and animal. And so it goes, through every phase of circus life.
Among hunter-gatherers, success obviously has nothing to do with money. In the circus, of course, everyone knows the show must make money in order to continue, but it's the circus, not the money, that provides the livelihood. I mean that they don't keep the circus going in order to make money; they make money in order to keep the circus going. (An artist might see it this way: there's a difference between painting in order to make money and making money in order to paint.)
The tribe is what provides them with what they need, and if the tribe is gone, they're all out of luck. Everyone wants the circus owner to make money, because if he stops making money, the show will close. Everyone's interest lies in the success of the whole. What's good for the tribe is good for everyone, from the owner down to the cotton- candy butchers.
I lean on the example of the circus to emphasize the fact that the tribal life isn't something that just worked long ago or just for hunter-gatherers.
If there's such a thing as "the theater," "the opera," and "the movies," then why wouldn't there be such a thing as "the circus"? But is it really tribal?
It's because the circus is tribal that we notice when a particular circus ceases to be tribal. The history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is unmistakably a history of circus tribes, but by now that particular circus is just a big business, as hierarchical as General Motors or United Airlines. No one mistakes a show like the Ice Capades for a tribal affair; it began as big business and has never been anything else.
Many small businesses start in a very tribal way, with a few partners pouring in all their resources and taking out only what's needed to survive, but this tribal character quickly disappears if the company becomes a conventional hierarchy. Even if it develops tribally, with new members extending the living to include themselves, it risks losing its tribal character if it becomes too large. At a certain size it must either stop growing or begin to organize itself as a tribe of tribes, which is probably the best way to understand the kinds of circuses you're likely to see in any big city today.
A tribe is a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living. A tribe of tribes is a coalition of tribes working together as equals to make a living; each tribe has a boss, as does the coalition as a whole.
What a tribal people transmits to the next generation is not a ready-made fortune but rather a reliable way to make a living. For this reason, the Busch family of brewers is a clan but not a tribe. What the current generation of Busches received from the previous generation was not a way to make a living but a ready-made fortune that will be passed on to the next generation.
By contrast, the world-famous circus performers known as the Great Wallendas have no billion-dollar corporation to transmit to succeeding generations. What they have to transmit is a way to make a living. The living isn't ready-made for them (as it was for August Busch III, who wouldn't have to work a day in his life if he didn't want to). Just as each succeeding generation of hunter-gatherers receives from the preceding the knowledge and practice of hunting and gathering (but must ultimately do their own hunting and gathering to stay alive), each succeeding generation of Wallendas receives from the preceding the knowledge and practice of circus performance (but must ultimately do their own performing to stay alive).
In an ethnic tribe, it's not at all uncommon to see three and even four generations at work side by side. The same thing is seen in circus tribes like the Wallendas, where no one is amazed if twelve-year-old Aurelia Wallenda performs the Cloud Swing with a forty-seven-year-old uncle, Alexandre Sacha Pavlata, a sixth- generation circus performer.
Just as many will see the aptness of classifying the circus as a tribe, others will rise up to denounce it as false or absurdly idealized. It will be pointed out, for example, that circuses routinely hire casual laborers who work for a day or a week and then are gone. These day-laborers are rarely members of the tribe and rarely become members of the tribe—all perfectly true (though it doesn't change the fact that some do become members of the tribe).
In very small circuses, all the work is done by the same group of people, who set up the equipment, man the booths, perform, and work with the animals. In larger circuses, however, bosses, performers, and workers are seen as belonging to different social classes, which theoretically (at least in some circuses) don't fraternize. I have to wonder, however, about the validity of seeing these as "social classes." It's possible, in an ordinary social setting, to imagine the worker class dreaming of overthrowing the "ruling" class. But this would be nonsense in a circus setting. What imaginable good would it do circus performers to "overthrow" the bosses? What imaginable good would it do circus workers to "overthrow" the performers? Rather than saddle the circus with "social classes" that don't quite work, I feel it makes better sense to think of the circus as a tribe of tribes, much as, for example, the Sioux were a tribe of tribes.
One July day in 1986, reporter Ron Grossman of the Chicago Tribune traveled with "the last little mud show in America" as it departed New Windsor, Illinois, and set up at Wataga, thirty miles away. This was the Culpepper and Merriweather Great Combined Circus touring company, consisting of six performers, one roustabout, three goats, six dogs, as many Shetland ponies, and two young tag-alongs in the great tradition of Toby Tyler. While helping stake down the circus's fifty-by-seventy foot tent in Wataga's Firemen's Park, owner and ringmaster Red Johnson recalled his own circus history, which began at age nine.
"My mother woke me real early one morning and we went to watch the Cole Bros. Circus set up. I remember really flipping for the blacksmith's shop," he said while swinging an eighteen-pound sledgehammer in alternating strokes with clown B.J. Herbert and tightrope walker Jim Zajack. "Afterwards, she got me a souvenir circus book and on the inside cover wrote: 'Don't get any ideas.' "
"Funny thing is my folks said the same thing when they gave me a circus book one Christmas," Zajack said. But by age seventeen, he'd worn them down enough to let him take what was supposedly a summer job with the Franzen Bros. Circus. He never went back home again, except when a show folded.
"The circus," he told Grossman, "is like a little tribe of nomads. Once initiated, you don't drop out."
Terrell "Cap" Jacobs, a whip-cracker with Culpepper and Merriweather, zeroed in on the hierarchical nature of the bigger circuses, noting that they have "the same kind of pecking order" as society in general. "On Ringling's, performers think it's beneath them to talk to roustabouts. Everybody has his own job to do; and, after the performance, everybody goes back to the private world of his own RV. Here, we're a family. We all work together, perform together, eat together, and, yes, bitch and moan at each other. There's not enough of us to play chiefs and Indians. It's got to be a democracy."
But it isn't just tiny shows that experience this tribal democracy. In 1992 David LeBlanc, tent boss (and later operations manager) for Big Apple Circus, said: "You have a total community here. I grew up in the suburbs, and I couldn't tell you the name of the people who live next to my parents, and I lived there for fifteen years. Here you not only live in the neighborhood, you're also working together for a common goal. You're part of something."
After helping a female member of the crew uproot a particularly stubborn tent stake, LeBlanc said, "That's the circus attitude. She has the heart. And you know what? That had nothing to do with her job. She was just helping out. People here are willing to do anything. In the real world, people demand a ten-minute break after working three hours, but here people are just devoted to what they do."
People don't plant crops because it's less work, they plant crops because they want to settle down and live in one place. An area that is only foraged doesn't yield enough human food to sustain a permanent settlement. To build a village, you must grow some crops—and this is what most aboriginal villagers grow: some crops. They don't grow all their food. They don't need to.
Once you begin turning all the land around you into cropland, you begin to generate enormous food surpluses, which have to be protected from the elements and from other creatures—including other people. Ultimately they have to be locked up. Though it surely isn't recognized at the time, locking up the food spells the end of tribalism and beginning of the hierarchical life we call civilization.
As soon as the storehouse appears, someone must step forward to guard it, and this custodian needs assistants, who depend on him entirely, since they no longer earn a living as farmers. In a single stroke, a figure of power appears on the scene to control the community's wealth, surrounded by a cadre of loyal vassals, ready to evolve into a ruling class of royals and nobles.
This doesn't happen among part-time farmers or among hunter-gatherers (who have no surpluses to lock up). It happens only among people who derive their entire living from agriculture—people like the Maya, the Olmec, the Hohokam, and so on.
Every civilization that enters history ex nihilo (that is, from no previous civilization) enters with the same basic hierarchal social organization firmly in place, whether it emerges in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, or the New World. How this remarkable result came about (doubtless through some process of natural selection) would make an interesting study—but not my study. Why it happened I leave to others. That it happened is undisputed.
The rough outlines of this social organization are familiar to everyone through the Egyptian model. You have a highly centralized state organization that consolidates in itself all economic, military, political, and religious power. The ruling caste, headed by a living deity in the shape of a pharaoh, Inca, or other divine monarch, is supported by a priestly bureaucracy that regulates and supervises the labor force conscripted for (among other things) the construction of palace and ceremonial complexes, temples, and pyramids.
The tribe is of course long gone—has by this time been gone for centuries, if not millennia.
To be fair, I suppose I might divide this into two sections: What the rulers like about hierarchal societies and What everyone else doesn't like about them, but I doubt if anyone really needs me to explicate the first of these.
What people (aside from rulers) don't like about hierarchal societies is that they don't exist for all their members in the same way. They provide a life of unbelievable luxury and ease for the rulers and a life of poverty and toil for everyone else. The way rulers benefit from the success of the society is vastly different from the way the masses benefit, and the pyramids and the temples testify to the importance of the rulers, not to the masses who build them. And so it goes, through every phase of life in a hierarchal society.
The difference between the circus and Disney World is that the circus is a tribe and Disney World is a hierarchy. Disney World has employees, not members. It doesn't provide these employees with a living, it just pays them wages. The employees are working for themselves, and if Disney World can no longer pay them, they'll abandon it immediately. The owners have an investment in its success and benefit from its success. The employees are just employees.
Kids of all ages run off to join the circus. No one runs off to join Disney World.
This is a question asked by people who hate the idea that the tribal life actually works for people. The answer is, no, this is not what's found. Tribes have leaders, to be sure, and some times very strong leaders, but leadership carries little or nothing in the way of special benefits that are denied to other members of the tribe. Has there never arisen a tribe that has "gone hierarchal," where the leader has made himself into a despot? I'm absolutely certain this has happened, perhaps thousands of times. What's important to note is that no such tribe has survived. The reason isn't hard to find—people don't like living under despots. Again, that's natural selection at work: tribes ruled by despots fail to hold onto their members and become extinct.
In the circus everyone wants there to be a boss, taking care of business, making sure the circus stays in the black, making unpleasant decisions about who's going to be hired and fired, settling disputes, working out contracts, and dealing with local authorities. Without a boss, the circus would disappear in a hurry, but the boss is just another person with a job—the job of being boss. The boss isn't envied or even particularly admired. The stars of the show get the glory (as well as the highest salaries and the fanciest clothes), but they're nothing remotely like a ruling class.
The ruled masses of our culture have been no less miserable than the ruled masses of the Maya, the Olmec, and other civilization-quitters we've examined. The difference between us and them is that we possess (or are possessed by) a complex of memes that so far have utterly barred us from quitting. We're absolutely convinced that civilization cannot be surpassed any means and so must be carried forward even at the price our own extinction.
Unable to walk away, we've used three very different rationales to make sense of our inaction.
One reason we tend to think of East and West as culturally distinct is that Easterners have a different way of rationalizing the hierarchy under which they live; as they see it, this hierarchy results from the fundamental operation of the universe, which assures the realization of karma by means of reincarnation. Under the theory of karma, one's sins and virtues are punished or rewarded in this and subsequent lives. Thus if you're born to the life of an untouchable in Bhaktapur, India, where you can never hope to rise to any occupation above cleaning latrines, you have no one to blame but yourself. You have no grounds to envy or hate the Brahmans who shun and despise you; their life of felicity and leisure is only what they deserve, just as your life of poverty and misery is only what you deserve.
In this way the arrangement of people into high, middle, and low classes is shown to be justice made manifest in a divinely ordered universe. If I'm rich and well fed and you're poor and starving, this is only as it should be.
Buddhism may be seen as offering relief from this rigid posture of resignation to one's lot.
Buddha and Jesus alike assured their listeners that the poor and downtrodden are (or ultimately will be) better off than the rich and powerful, who will find it almost impossible to attain salvation. The poor can live most happily, Buddha said, possessing nothing and living on joy alone, like the radiant gods. The meek (that is, the ones who always end up building the pyramids) will inherit the earth, Jesus said, and the kingdom of God will turn the hierarchy upside down; the kingdom of God will belong to the poor, not to the rich, and rulers and ruled will change places, making the first last and the last first. Jesus and Buddha agree that, contrary to appearances, riches don't make people happy. Rather, says Buddha, riches just make them greedy. And the poor shouldn't envy the rich their treasures, which are always subject to being stolen by thieves or eaten up by moths and rust; rather, Jesus says, they should accumulate incorruptible treasures in heaven.
These are the "consolations" that led Karl Marx to call religion "the opium of the people." This opium carries the masses out of their misery and up into the empyrean of tranquil acceptance. More important, from the viewpoint of the ruling class, this opium keeps them quiet and submissive, the promised inheritance of the meek remaining firmly and forever in the future.
But dreams of heaven in the sky began to lose their universal appeal as the Age of Faith declined, and new dreams began to take shape—dreams of heaven on earth this time, dreams of revolution, dreams of turning everything upside down, of casting down the rulers of the past and raising up new rulers out of the ruled.
Many such revolutions occurred, most notably in France, America, and Russia, but in every case, strangely enough, the hierarchy merely changed hands and went on as before. The masses still have their stones to drag, day after day, and day after day the pyramids keep going up.
French philosopher Simone Weil disagreed with Marx, saying that revolution, not religion, is the opium of the masses. Shame on them both for not understanding people and their drugs better. Religion is a barbiturate, dulling the pain and putting you to sleep. Revolution is an amphetamine, revving you up and making you feel powerful. When people have nothing else going for them, they'll grab either one—or both. Neither drug is going away. Far from it. Contrary to postwar expectations, which saw religion slipping into the past like snake-oil medicine shows, religion is on the rise, right along with revolution. And in what is supposedly the happiest, most prosperous nation in human history, more and more antigovernment terrorist groups attract more and more members every year.
When Marx made his famous pronouncement; opium itself was not a drug of the people, so what he was getting at is that religion is the public's cheap narcotic. He could not have guessed, perhaps, that opium itself (in one form or another) would eventually become the opium of the people, despite its cost.
As things get worse and worse for us, we're going to need more and more of all the things that give us relief and oblivion and all the things that get us revved up and excited. More religion, more revolution, more drugs, more television channels, more sports, more casinos, more pornography, more lotteries, more access to the Web—more and more and more of it all—to give ourselves the impression that life is nonstop fun. But meanwhile, of course, every morning we must shake off the hangover and forget about fun for eight or ten hours while we drag our quota of stones up the side of the pyramid.
What life could possibly be sweeter than this?
Readers are bound to be curious about my own working life. Have I, they must wonder, suffered so much as a stone-dragger? No, in fact, I've been one of the lucky ones. Early on I found a niche wherein I could think of myself as an artisan rather than a mere draft animal. You might say I dressed stones for others to drag, and I was proud of my workmanship. I began my working life on a nice, respectable little pyramid being built by Spencer Publishing in Chicago, called The American Peoples Encyclopedia; this was bought by a much larger builder, Grolier, which moved it stone by stone to New York City. I stayed behind in Chicago to work for Science Research Associates on a pyramid called the Greater Cleveland Mathematics Program. SRA too was soon bought by a bigger builder, IBM. I eventually moved on to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation, where I supervised pyramid building in the mathematics department. I ended my career at a company owned by another giant, the Singer Corporation, where I supervised all multimedia pyramid-building. The end there came when one day the president of the company told me my work was "too good." It didn't have to be that good, he explained, because it was "just for kids," and kids "don't know the difference." I finally realized I'd never be able to accomplish my goals working on anybody else's pyramids.
The craft I ply today is the one I plied for the companies I just mentioned. I'm not doing anything different for myself than I did for them. The work is the same . . . but I don't think it has anything to do with building a pyramid.
The test is this. If you had a billion dollars in the bank, would you go on doing the work you do to make a living? Really, honestly, truly? I'm sure about ten percent of the people reading this book would say yes—for example, Steven Spielberg and Bill Gates (who already has his billion but still seems to love his work). I too am among that lucky ten percent. If I had a billion in the bank, I'd go right on writing.
There's plenty of room in the world for the ten percent who love their work. My passion is to make a little room in the world for the other ninety percent who don't. I'm not trying to take away the fun that the Spielbergs and Gateses have, I'm trying to open an escape route for the billions who are not having fun, who slog stones up the pyramids not because they love stones or pyramids but because they have no other way to put food on the table. We can give them a break without taking away the break enjoyed by the lucky ten percent—but only if we go beyond this thing called civilization.
I can name a couple of concepts I personally find slippery (mise en scene for example, and postmodernism), but civilization isn't one of them. The Oxford English Dictionary handles it in a mere dozen words: "Civilized condition or state; a developed or advanced state of human society." The American Heritage Dictionary articulates it a bit more fully: "An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions."
The thing that forces the institutions of any civilization to become politically and socially "complex" is of course their hierarchical arrangement. A confederation of farming villages isn't politically and socially complex, and it's not a civilization. When, a thousand years later, the royal family lives in a palace guarded by professional soldiers and buffered from the masses by clans of nobles and a priestly caste that manages the state religion, then you have the requisite political and social "complexity"—and you have civilization.
No tribal society, no matter how "advanced" in other respects, has ever been called a civilization in this sense.
The tribal life and no other is the gift of natural selection to humanity. It is to humanity what pack life is to wolves, pod life is to whales, and hive life is to bees. After three or four million years of human evolution, it alone emerged as the social organization that works for people. People like the tribal organization because it works equally well for all members.
Wherever civilization emerges, tribalism withers and is replaced by hierarchalism. Hierarchalism works very well for the rulers but much less well for the ruled, who make up the mass of the society. For this reason, the few at the top like it very well and the masses at the bottom like it very much less well.
With one exception, the experience of history is that people who make a trial of the hierarchal life ultimately abandon it as unsatisfactory. Some trials were still in progress when we destroyed them, so we can't know how they might have ended otherwise. We're the one exception. We're driven to cling to our hierarchical society by a complex of memes that tell us that, what we have is unimprovable no matter how much we dislike it, no matter if it devastates the world and results in our own extinction. These memes tell us that what we have is the life humans were meant to have from the beginning and cannot be bettered by any other.
The Natchez, a people found by seventeenth-century Europeans to be flourishing in the area around modern Natchez, Mississippi, had a society rather midway between a federation of farming villages and a full-blown theocratic civilization like that of the Egyptians or Maya. They had three classes of nobles and one class of commoners. At the top were the Suns, the chief of whom was a living god, the Great Sun. Next came the Nobles, then the Honored People. The commoners at the bottom were the Stinkards.
What makes the Natchez experiment noteworthy is the fact that the classes were hereditary, but membership in them wasn't (or at least not exactly), because every member of the nobility was required to marry a Stinkard. This meant that every member of the Stinkard class saw its children rise a notch, while every member of the nobility saw its children sink a notch. Passing over the details, the effect of marrying into the Stinkard class was this, that the son of a Sun was a Noble (not a Sun), and the son of this Noble was an Honored (not a Noble), while the son of this Honored was a Stinkard. But having reached the bottom of the social scale, this great-grandson of a Sun was now eligible to marry a Sun woman, and their offspring would be a Sun, thus beginning the cycle all over again.
In the Natchez system, no matter how exalted you were, one of your parents was a Stinkard—and even if you were at the bottom of the heap, you could marry a noble and have noble children. It's hard to imagine how such a bizarre system could have evolved in the ordinary way. I presume it was a deliberate contrivance, intended to correct the perceived flaw that caused hierarchical systems elsewhere to be abandoned. Perhaps the Natchez consciously perceived it as a way to fix what was wrong with societies like the Mayan and the Olmec. If so, the Natchez may have made the greatest discovery in the history of human social development—a way to build a hierarchical society that was actually tolerable to all its members, because no family ever found itself stuck at the bottom but was constantly revolving through the hierarchy. Would natural selection have rewarded the system with survival? Would the Natchez have held onto their members? Sadly, we'll never know, because they were wiped out by the French at the end of the seventeenth century.
As promising as this system seems, however, it had a fundamental flaw. Because all three noble classes had to marry into the lowest class, marriageable Stinkards were chronically in short supply and had to be augmented with captives from conquered neighbors. With this systemic impetus toward conquest, the Natchez might (with a few thousand years head start) have become the conquerors of the world instead of us—and might now be facing exactly our sort of crisis.
Every civilization brought forth in the course of human history has been a hierarchical affair. The thing we call civilization goes hand in hand with hierarchy—means hierarchy, requires hierarchy. Why this is so would make a fascinating study—but, again, not my study. It's enough for me to know that it is so. You can have hierarchy without civilization, but you can't have civilization without hierarchy; at least we never have—not once, not anywhere, in ten thousand years of civilization building. To have a civilization is to have a hierarchical society.
To go beyond civilization therefore means going beyond hierarchalism.
Does going beyond civilization mean destroying civilization? Certainly not. Why would it?
All dedicated pyramid-builders should stick with civilization. The rest of us just want something else, and it's high time we had it.
Despite all the indicators of misery we live with—the overgrowing incidence of social disintegration, drug addiction, crime, suicide, mental illness, child and spousal abuse and abandonment, racism, violence against women, and so on—most people in our culture are thoroughly convinced that our way of life simply cannot be bettered by any means whatever. Adopting anything different would therefore have to be a comedown, an act of sacrifice.
Very typically, when people question me about the future, they ask if I really believe people will be willing to "give up" the wonderful things we have for the mere privilege of avoiding extinction. When I speak, as I did in Ishmael, of "another story to be in," they seem to imagine I'm touting a sort of miserable half-life of voluntary poverty, donning sackcloth and ashes to do penance for our environmental sins. They're sure that living in a sustainable way must be about "giving up" things. It doesn't occur to them that living in an UNsustainable way is also about giving up things, very precious things like security, hope, lightheartedness, and freedom from anxiety, fear, and guilt.
When in doubt, think about the circus. People never run off to join the circus to give up something. They run off to the circus to get something.
Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written: "The world's most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization."
My wife, Rennie, and I learned this great truth for ourselves during the 1980s, in the seven years we spent in Madrid, a mountain village in central New Mexico. Eking out a living on a small inheritance, I was at work on the book that would someday become Ishmael. During this time we were poor by ordinary standards but just ordinary by Madrid standards. In Madrid at this time everyone was poor—and so no one was poor. The average Madrid household income was probably around three thousand dollars—vastly below the national poverty level—but there were no poor people in Madrid. No one gloried in being poor or in living "simply." All gloried in their independence, in their ingenuity, in their acquisition of needed skills, and above all in doing what they wanted to do.
Visitors to Madrid (doubtless like visitors to circus back lots) probably had the impression that it was a sort of "depressed area." In fact, I've never lived in an area that was less depressed!
When Rennie and I moved from Chicago to Madrid, we recognized in a vague way that we were lowering our standard of living, but we weren't doing this to make ourselves harmless or to reduce our impact on the planet. We were doing it to reduce our expenses while I was working on the book that ultimately became Ishmael.
To give you an idea of the difference, in nearby Santa Fe at this time you quite literally couldn't buy a rundown one-car garage for $80,000. In nearby Madrid, by contrast, we were able to buy a nice little building right on the highway that was serving as both living quarters and a general store, complete with inventory, for $30,000. Even at this price I'm not sure we would have bought it if it hadn't been situated in a way that suited us perfectly. The principal element of that situation was that it was on the town's main street and within easy walking distance of all the town's urban resources (modest as they were). In these respects, it was just like our previous residence, in Chicago, where we lived on Lake Shore Drive, within easy walking distance of all the resources of the Belmont Harbor/New Town area. By leaving Chicago and moving to Madrid, we managed to get more of what we needed at that time by lowering our standard of living.
Another element of the Madrid house that suited us was the fact that it had a large room (which most people would think of as a living room) that served us as twin offices spaced far enough apart that we were not working in each other's lap but close enough so we could communicate easily.
Today, some twelve years later, we live on a main thoroughfare, within easy walking distance of the urban resources of a major city. One of the things that suits us about our residence is that it has a large room (which most people would think of as a living room) that serves us as twin offices spaced far enough apart that we're not working in each other's lap but close enough so we can communicate easily.
Needless to say, there are some things available to us in Houston that were not available in Madrid, and these are things we need in our present circumstances, which are very different now. Roughly speaking, by moving to Houston we've upped our standard of living by a factor of ten over the Madrid years. What has not been upped is our overall feeling of contentment and well-being. If we're happier today (and we are), it has nothing to do with our higher standard of living.
Spending more will certainly get you more, but it won't necessarily get you more of what you want.
People who dislike what I'm saying will often try to reassure themselves with the thought that I'm just someone who hates civilization and would rather live "close to nature." This will bring a smile to the face of anyone who knows me, for I'm a great lover of civilization and live happily in the heart of the fourth largest U.S. city, in easy walking distance to drugstores, supermarkets, video rental shops, art galleries, restaurants, bookstores, museums, pool halls, universities, and tattoo parlors. (And I live "close to nature" every second of every day, 365 days a year, since "nature" is something no one can escape living close to, no matter where you happen to live.)
Or they challenge me to say how I'd like living without air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, refrigerators, telephones, computers, and so on. They think I'm an apostle of poverty, though they can't point to a single word in any of my writings to support such a notion.
I'm not a Luddite or a Unabomber. I don't regard civilization as a curse but as a blessing that people (including me) should be free to walk away from—for something better. And something better is what I'm after, and nothing less. Those who are looking for something worse definitely need to consult a different book.
Consulting any dictionary reveals that the word civilization signifies to us something that is socially "advanced." There is, of course, only one thing for it to be socially advanced over, and that's tribalism. (Barbarianism doesn't represent a specific type of social organization; barbarians are either tribal people or people at a stage of civilization perceived to be more primitive than one's own.)
In our cultural mythology we see ourselves as having left tribalism behind the way modern medicine left the leech and the bleeding bowl behind, and we did so decisively and irrevocably. This is why it's so difficult for us to acknowledge that tribalism is not only the preeminently humansuccessful social organization in human history. Thus, when even so wise and thoughtful a statesman as Mikhail Gorbachev calls for "a new beginning" and "a new civilization," he doesn't doubt for a single moment that the pattern for it lies in the social organization that has introduced humanity to oppression, injustice, poverty, chronic famine, incessant violence, genocide, global warfare, crime, corruption, and wholesale environmental destruction. To consult, in our time of deepest crisis, with the unqualified success that humanity enjoyed here for more than three million years is quite simply and utterly unthinkable. social organization, it's also the only unequivocally
That, finally, is my purpose in this book: to think about the utterly unthinkable.
Because revolution in our culture has always represented an attack on hierarchy, it has always meant upheaval—literally a heaving up from below. But upheaval has no role to play in moving beyond civilization. If the plane is in trouble, you don't shoot the pilot, you grab a parachute and jump. To overthrow the hierarchy is pointless; we just want to leave it behind.
As everyone knows (especially revolutionaries), hierarchy maintains formidable defenses against attack from the lower orders. It has none, however, against abandonment. This is in part because it can imagine revolution, but it can't imagine abandonment. But even if it could imagine abandonment, it couldn't defend against it, because abandonment isn't an attack, it's just a discontinuance of support.
It's almost impossible to prevent people from doing nothing (which is what discontinuing support amounts to).
But won't the powers that be try to prevent people from doing nothing? I can imagine them trying, but I honestly need help imagining them succeeding.
The object of ordinary revolution is to effect global change across the board with a single, sweeping blow. Ideally, former rulers must disappear overnight—en masse, along with all supporters and minions—with a complete cast of successors ready to step into their shoes the following morning to proclaim the new regime. Scenarios like this one are meaningless to those who would move beyond civilization.
In the first place, there's no need for global change. Those who insist on having nothing less than global change will wait a long time, probably forever. There's no need for everyone in the world to go to bed one night living one way and wake up the next morning living another way. This isn't going to happen, and it's pointless to try to make it happen.
There is likewise no need for change across the board—for everything to suddenly begin to be done differently. It's unnecessary for this to happen, and nothing in the world can make it happen. Always keep in mind that there is no one right way for people to live. There never has been and never will be.
Finally, we don't want the ruling class to disappear overnight. We're not ready to see the infrastructure of civilization disappear (and may never be). At least for the time being, we want our rulers and leaders to continue to supervise civilization's drudgery for us—keeping the potholes filled, the sewage and water treatment plants running, and so on.
People often imagine that it would be wonderful if all six billion of us started living a new way tomorrow. It's one of our most deep-rooted and misguided memes, that there absolutely must be some one right way for everyone to live.
I admire the Gebusi of New Guinea, but (trust me) not everyone in the world should live the way they do. I admire the Gypsies, but not everyone in the world should live the way they do—and (oddly enough) if they did, their way of life would fail. I admire the Jalali—nomadic peddlers and performers of Afghanistan—but not everyone in the world should live the way they do. I admire the Toupees of the Sudan, the genuine of Kenya, and the Kariera of Western Australia, but not everyone in the world should live the way they do. This isn't sociological thinking, this is ecological thinking. Macaws have a good life, but their habitats would fail if all birds lived like macaws. Giraffes have a good life, but their habitats would fail if all mammals lived like giraffes. Beavers have a good life, but their habitats would fail if all rodents lived like beavers.
Diversity, not uniformity, is what works. Our problem is not that people are living a bad way but rather that they're all living the same way. The earth can accommodate many people living in a voraciously wasteful and pollutive way, it just can't accommodate all of us living that way.
We don't need to have all six billion of us living like environmental saints tomorrow—or ever, for that matter. To take such a thing as our objective would merely assure failure. This is precisely the strength of the strategy I'm proposing here. We don't need to achieve the impossible dreams of global enlightenment, unity, and resolve that people like Mikhail Gorbachev and Al Gore describe as humanity's only hope. We simply can't, as Gorbachev suggests, wait for "all members of the world community" to "resolutely discard old stereotypes." We can't wait for all members of the world community to do anything, because if we know anything at all, we know that all members of the world community will never, ever do anything as a body. "The time has come," Gorbachev says, "to choose a new direction of global development." But who's going to do this choosing? Everyone? And how many decades (or even centuries) will have to pass before that happens? Where on earth is Al Gore's "New Common Purpose" to come from? When have the people of earth ever been able to agree on a common anything? These are will-o-the-wisps, vain expectations that keep us rooted in hopelessness, year after year, decade after decade.
We can't wait for our national leaders to save us. When all we demand from them (or even tolerate from them) are instant short-term gains, why would they suddenly begin thinking like global visionaries?
Because we don't expect to overthrow governments, abolish world capitalism, make civilizationanything. But I have to warn you that many people will tell you the opposite, that we have to wait until we have a world that is already perfect. They feel absolutely nothing should happen until we've banished social inequality, racism, sexism, poverty, and every other bad thing you can think of. vanish, or turn everyone in the world into walking buddhas, we don't have to wait for
I've had people tell me we have to wait till everyone "respects" everyone else. I've had people tell me we can't do anything till everyone's "consciousness" has been raised. People who think like this would wait for the cut to heal before applying a bandage, would wait till daybreak to light a candle, would wait for the sinking ship to rise before getting in the lifeboat. They're way past my comprehension, and beyond offering the opinion that they're going to have an awful long wait, I can't think of a thing to say to them.
A friend recently sent me a copy of Deep Democracy, a periodical published by the Alliance for Democracy, whose mission is "to free all people from corporate domination of politics, economics, the environment, culture, and information; to establish true democracy; and to create a just society with a sustainable equitable economy." The cover featured an illustration in political-cartoon style of the organization's self-perception: a diminutive David facing a Goliath armed with the sword of money politics and the spear of greed, wearing the armor of multinational corporations, and shielded by a mainstream media monopoly. The title of the cartoon couldn't have been more apt: "Deja Vu (All Over Again)." Indeed. Over and over and over and over.
I had to explain to my friend that, while I wish the Alliance the best of luck, I don't perceive myself to be a participant in this struggle. We can't afford to wait for David to finish off Goliath, because obviously David never finishes off Goliath. The two of them have been standing there toe to toe for thousands of years—and they'll still be standing there a thousand years from now.
We don't need to defeat Goliath. We need to change the ways he thinks.
Once upon a time in the commercial carpeting industry there was a Goliath named Ray C. Anderson who had taken his company, Interface, Inc., from a modest beginning to a position of global leadership in about twenty years, becoming one of those wicked billionaire multinational corporations you hear about. This Goliath had always made a point of being in compliance with government regulations, but these didn't stop the business from being a highly pollutive one—petroleum based and contributing heavily to landfill.
But in 1994 he read two books that changed his mind about what he was doing. One was Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce, the other was Ishmael. After reading these books, Ray Anderson saw that being in compliance is not nearly enough. He immediately initiated action to end his dependence on petroleum and to begin making one hundred percent recyclable carpeting made from one hundred percent recycled materials, thus reducing his company's contribution to landfill to zero. It's important to note that these changes didn't affect just his corporation. Suddenly all his competitors were compelled to adopt his standards in order to remain competitive. This Goliath didn't just reform a business, he reformed an entire industry—not because any plucky little David defeated him, but because two books made him think a different way about the world and his place in it.
If people will willingly reform an industry when their minds are changed, why spend billions to enact and enforce laws to compel them to do it?
I say again that, because we don't expect to overthrow governments, abolish world capitalism, make civilization vanish, turn everyone in the world into walking buddhas, or cure all social and economic ills, we don't have to wait for anything. If ten people walk beyond civilization and build a new sort of life for themselves, then those ten are already living in the next paradigm, from the first day. They don't need the support of an organization. They don't need to belong to a party or a movement. They don't need new laws to be passed. They don't need permits. They don't need a constitution. They don't need taxexempt status.
For those ten, the revolution will already have succeeded.
They probably should be prepared, however, for the outrage of their neighbors.
The tribes we grew up with during the first three or four million years of human life were ethnic groups, extended families having a common language, common laws and customs, and so on. Their social borders were generally (but not absolutely) closed to members of other tribes. Captives of war were an obvious exception, but a member of the Sioux, for example, couldn't ordinarily just decide to become a Navajo. It might happen under extraordinary circumstances, to be sure, but tribal integrity would have suffered if it became a general rule.
Rennie and I have links to the Quinn clan and to the MacKay clan (hers), but like most modern clan members, we go our way and they go theirs. Very occasionally what might be considered a tribal action will take place in these clans, but in the modern world no one is surprised when people turn out to be closer to friends and colleagues than to families.
But there's nothing specially sacrosanct about ethnic tribalism. The sort of tribalism we see at work in the circus evolved in the same way as ethnic tribalism. It too is the product of natural selection, works as well (in its own way) as ethnic tribalism, and provides us with a model that is perfectly adapted to the urban circumstances most of us find ourselves in.
In My Ishmael I recounted the life of a young man named Jeffrey, loosely based on Paul Eppinger, whose journal was published by his father under the title Restless Mind Quiet Thoughts. Jeffrey was attractive, intelligent, personable, and multitalented, but he couldn't find anything he wanted to do, other than hang out with friends, write in his journal, and play the guitar. His friends were forever urging him to find a direction, get some ambition, and care about something, but of course none of these things can be done at will. He came to believe his friends when they told him he was unusual—peculiar, even—in his aimlessness. In the end, despairing of finding the purposefulness that seems to come so easily to others, he quietly and without fuss took his own life.
I wasn't surprised to hear from many youngsters who feel exactly like Jeffrey, who know the world is full of things they should want to do—and who imagine that there must be something dreadfully wrong
with them for failing to want it. Because I've taken the trouble to study cultures different from our own, I know there's nothing innately human about wanting to "make something" of yourself or to "get ahead" or to have a career, a profession, or a vocation. Notions like these are foreign to most, aboriginal peoples, who seem perfectly content to live just the way Jeffrey wanted to live—and why shouldn't they be?
Jeffrey died for lack of a tribe—but not, of course, for lack of an ethnic tribe. Youngsters often tell me they long to run off to join the Yanomami of Brazil or the Alawa of Australia, and I have to explain that tribes like these aren't open to them. Though famously hospitable, they can't afford to take in wide-eyed kids who show up on their doorsteps completely devoid of the skills needed to help the tribe survive.
Throughout his wanderings, Jeffrey stayed with people who were making a living of one kind or another—family friends, ex-college chums, their parents, and so on. But, not surprisingly, none of them were making a living tribally; they had jobs, professions, and careers, but these were held individually, so there was no room for Jeffrey in them. They weren't making a living as a collaborative effort, so there was no way to extend their living to him. He was forever a guest, and guests (however charming) inevitably wear out their welcome.
In a sense, Jeffrey was unable to find anyone who knew how to give him as little as he wanted. Many youngsters want as little, and if they'll work together tribally, they can get it quite easily. Every tribe has the standard of living its members are willing to support.
People like Jeffrey need to live in a world of tribes, and a world of open tribes. And they aren't alone in this. Far from it, I think.
The circus is the very model of an open tribe. Things like nationality, language, race, ethnic background, age, gender, sexual orientation, political opinions, and religious beliefs won't exclude anyone who can contribute to the living of the circus, but its openness isn't absolute, of course. It isn't a refuge for the homeless, for example; it doesn't take in people altruistically. This isn't to say that there's a prohibition against altruism. The circus must take good care of its members or they'll defect to circuses that are more open-handed and bountiful. It's a question of survival. A species that can't hold onto its members becomes extinct, and the same is true of a tribe.
On the other hand, a circus that is too altruistic (for example, that takes in people who don't contribute to its success) soon has difficulty making ends meet; it begins cutting salaries, lowering the general living standard, skimping on quality across the board—and begins to lose its most talented members to other circuses.
Circuses that find a workable balance between economic success and community needs stay in business. Circuses that don't find that balance disappear.
Ordinary businesses don't burden themselves with tribal obligations. Most obviously, they don't "take care" of their workers; to do so would introduce them to a whole suite of problems in which there's no profit whatever. Instead, they pay salaries and expect workers to take care of themselves. One worker may thrive on a given salary, while another languishes on it. From the company's point of view, there's no injustice in this if the salary is fair in the first place. It's not the company's fault that the second worker has a large family to support or an ailing parent to take care of—or is just a bad manager of money. The company can afford to be hard-nosed about this; it doesn't risk losing this second worker to a competitor, because its competitors are equally hard-nosed about it.
This unspoken agreement among businesses to limit their obligation to issuing a paycheck is precisely what gives our society its prison ambience. Workers have "no way out." Whether they move from company to company or from nation to nation, their employers' obligation ends with the paycheck (an arrangement that obviously suits employers very well). Prisons are always arranged to suit the warders. That's the anticipated order of things. No one thinks that prisons are built to suit the needs of prisoners or that businesses are built to suit the needs of workers.
Stepping into a tribe means stepping out of the prison.
Having read this far, a student said to me, °I love what you're saying, but I don't see how just walking away from civilization helps us live 'as harmlessly as sharks and tarantulas and rattlesnakes,' which is the benchmark for success you established in Ishmael."
I think that, like many people, this person is more at ease with the idea of giving up things than getting things. He worries that people enjoying themselves may not be living as blamelessly as people denying themselves. Well-intentioned people often want to feel they're giving up something, which is only to be expected in a culture where all ethical and religious systems commend self-denial. In hierarchical societies it's always a good idea to make poverty sound like a blessing (and the rich are always especially vain about their austerities).
If you think this is something that no longer holds true, try this. Find me a single elementary or secondary textbook that promotes being rich as a value. Being rich is never held up to school-children as an ideal. Look all you want, you won't find a single text that says: "Make lots of money so you can have the best of everything— exotic cars, luxurious mansions, yachts, servants, designer clothes, extravagant jewelry, endless first-class travel, and so on." Our official classroom mythology is as prissy about wealth as it is about sex.
People have lived many different ways on this planet, but about ten thousand years ago there appeared one people who believed everyone in the world should live a single way—their way, which they considered the only "right" way. After ten thousand years of hard work, this one people, whom I've called the Takers, had conquered every continent on the planet and dominated the world completely. In the course of their conquest, the Takers overran, swallowed up, displaced, or eliminated every other culture and civilization in their path. Once the civilizations of the New World were destroyed, there was only one civilization left in the entire world—that of the Takers: ours. From that point on, civilization was synonymous with our civilization.
At the present time, the United States represents the high point of maximum affluence that our civilization has reached. There's no place on earth where people have more, use more, or waste more than the United States. Though other nations haven't as yet reached this high point, they yearn to reach it. They have no other goal. There's only one right way for people to live, and the people of the United States epitomize it. Everyone in the world should have a house, a car, a computer, a television set, a telephone, and so on—at least one of each, preferably several.
This I call "the culture of maximum harm," a culture in which all members are dedicated to attaining the high point of maximum affluence (and to forever raising the high point of maximum affluence).
I've been asked, "If we don't crush the Taker way entirely, won't it rebound and begin expanding again?"
The Middle Ages could only remain the Age of Faith for as long as Christian mythology dominated people's minds, all the way from serfs to kings. After that mythology was abased and superceded during the Renaissance, it was inconceivable that such an Age of Faith could recur. Never again will a whole civilization embrace the vision that dominated the Middle Ages.
The same is true of Taker mythology. Once it has been exposed for what it is—a collection of poisonous delusions—it will no longer be capable of exercising the power it has exercised over us for the past ten thousand years. Who, knowing that there's no one right way for people to live, will take up the sword to spread the Taker vision? Who, knowing that civilization is not humanity's last invention, will defend the hierarchy as if it were humanity's most sacred institution?
But won't the last pharaohs in their maddened wrath turn their nuclear arsenal on us?
Perhaps they would if they could, but where are they going to find us except living right beside them in their own cities? Is the president, seeing his/her power slip away, going to bomb Washington D.C. to destroy the tribal people living there? Is the governor of New York going to bomb Manhattan?
Because all six billion members of the culture of maximum harm are striving to maximize their affluence, we shouldn't be alarmed solely by the one percent who live like lords of the universe. We must be equally alarmed by the other ninety-nine percent who are hoping to live like lords of the universe. It's probably not going to be the billionaire pop stars, sports heroes, and deal-makers who are going to lead us out of the prison we share with them. It's the rest of us who must find the way out, who must discover something better to hope for than inhabiting a sable-lined cell next to Barbra Streisand, Michael Jordan, or Donald Trump.
The world can support a few million pharaohs, but it can't support six billion pharaohs.
"Something better to hope for. . ." Is this by any chance a reference to what I called "another story to be in" in Ishmael? Is this what I meant when I said that "people need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them"? Is this what I meant when I said in The Story of B that "If the world is saved, it will be saved because the people living in it have a new vision"?
Of course it is.
In case it isn't evident, I'm still working on my student's question: "How does walking away from civilization help us live as harmlessly as sharks and tarantulas and rattlesnakes?" Any move beyond civilization represents a move away from the culture of maximum harm and therefore reduces your harmfulness. Jumping over the wall of the prison won't instantly make you as harmless as a shark, tarantula, or rattlesnake, but it will instantly move you in that direction.
Look at it this way: no move beyond civilization will ever result in greater harm. If you want to do harm, you've got to stick to civilization. It's only inside that framework that you can burn up ten thousand gallons of jet fuel just to have lunch at your favorite restaurant in Paris. It's only inside that framework that you can casually dynamite a coral reef just because it inconveniences you.
Moving beyond civilization automatically limits your access to the tools needed to do harm. The people of the Circus Flora will never build a Stealth bomber or open a steel mill—not just because they wouldn't want to but because even if they wanted to, they wouldn't have access to the tools. To regain access to the tools, they'd have to leave the circus and find new places for themselves in the culture of maximum harm.
Though it's a good and necessary start, being less harmful is not enough. We're in the midst of a food race that is more deadly to us and to the world around us than the Cold War arms race was. This is a race between food production and population growth. Present-day followers of English economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), like those of the past, view producing enough food to feed our population as a "win," just as American Cold Warriors saw producing enough weapons to destroy the Soviet Union as a "win." They fail to see that, just as every American "win" stimulated an answering Soviet "win," every win in food production stimulates an answering "win" in population growth.
Right now our food race is rapidly converting our planet's biomass into human mass. This is what happens when we clear a piece of land of wildlife and replant it with human crops. This land was supporting a biomass comprising hundreds of thousands of species and tens of millions of individuals. Now all the productivity of that land is being turned into human mass, literally into human flesh. Every day all over the world diversity is disappearing as more and more of our planet's biomass is being turned into human mass. This is what the food race is about. This is exactly what the food race is about: every year turning more of our planet's biomass into human mass.
The arms race could only be ended in two ways, either by a nuclear catastrophe or by the participants walking away from it. Luckily, the second of these happened. The Soviets called it quits—and there was no catastrophe.
The race between food and population is the same. It can be ended by catastrophe, when simply too much of our planet's biomass is tied up in humans, and fundamental ecological systems collapse, but it doesn't have to end that way. It can end the way the arms race ended, by people simply walking away from it. We can say, "We understand now that there can be no final triumph of food over population. This is because every single win made on the side of food is answered by a win on the side of population. It has to be that way, it always has been that way, and we can see that it's never going to stop being that way."
But this isn't going to happen because of these few words—or even the thousands I've devoted to it in my other books and speeches. This subject engages our cultural mythology at the most profound level—a level far deeper than I imagined when I thought it could be handled in a few pages in Ishmael. This is the deadly man-eating Minotaur at the center of the labyrinth of our culture . . . far beyond the scope of the present expedition.
People will still be living here in one hundred years—if we start living a new way, soon.
But how would we get there, and what would it look like? Utopians can't let go of the idea of sweeter, gentler, more loving people taking over. I prefer to look at what worked for millions of years for people as they are. Sainthood was not required.
To project into the future: as people begin going over the wall in the early decades of the new millennium, our societal guardians are at first alarmed, seeing it as portending the end of civilization-as-we- know-it. They try heightening the wall with social and economic barbed wire but soon realize the futility of this. People will keep dragging stones if they're convinced there's no other way to go, but once another way opens up, nothing can stop them from defecting. Initially the defectors derive their living from the pyramid-builders, just as circuses do today. As time goes on, however, they begin to be less dependent on the pyramid-builders. They interact more and more with each other, building their own intertribal economy.
After a hundred years civilization is still hanging on at about half its present size. Half the world's population still belongs to the culture of maximum harm, but the other half, living tribally, enjoys a more modest lifestyle, directed toward getting more of what people want (as opposed to just getting more).
Gradually the economic balance of power shifts between "civilization" (by now almost always burdened with those quote marks) and the surrounding "beyond civilization." More and more people are seeing that they can trade off a plenitude of things they don't deeply want (power, social status, and supposed conveniences, amenities, and luxuries) for things they really do deeply want (security, meaningful work, more leisure, and social equality—all products of the tribal way of life). "The economy," no longer tied to an ever-expanding market, has become an increasingly local affair as global and national corporations gradually lose their reason for being.
Two hundred years out, the thing we call civilization has been left behind and seems as quaintly obsolete as Oliver Cromwell's theocracy. The cities are still there—where would they go?—as are the arts, the sciences, and technology, but these are no longer instruments and embodiments of the culture of maximum harm.
I don't indulge in these speculations in order to lay claim to powers of prophecy. I toss them into the water to show you what part of the pond I'm aiming at . . . and to let you follow the ripples back to the shore of the present.
In the paradigmatic utopian scenario, you gather your friends, equip yourselves with agricultural tools, and find a bit of wilderness paradise to which you can escape and get away from it all. The apparent attraction of this weary old fantasy is that it requires no imagination (being ready-made), can be enacted by almost anyone with the requisite funds, and sometimes actually works for longer than a few months. To advocate it as a general solution for six billion people would set an all-time record for inanity.
Civilization isn't a geographical territory, it's a social and economic territory where pharaohs reign and pyramids are built by the masses. Similarly, beyond civilization isn't a geographical territory, it's a social and economic territory where people in open tribes pursue goals that may or may not be recognizably "civilized."
You don't have to "go somewhere" to get beyond civilization. You have to make your living a different way.
Continue reading here or you can check your local bookstore to buy a print copy.
Daniel Quinn is best known as the author of Ishmael, used in classrooms from midschool to graduate school all over the world. Other works include The Story of B, My Ishmael, Beyond Civilization, After Dachau, The Holy, Tales of Adam, and If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways.