We have seen civilization’s disastrous effect on our quality of life, but the alternative—collapse—seems little better. However superior the Paleolithic way of life might have been, it is long gone, and there does not seem to be any way back. But we are now nearing the limits to our growth, and we are past the point of diminishing returns for our investments in further complexity (see thesis #15). Collapse is now inevitable (see thesis #26)—it is already underway. Collapse is an economizing process (see thesis #20) that begins when the alternative—continuing civilization—is no longer tolerable. We stand on the brink of collapse. That idea terrifies most people, but it shouldn’t: collapse increases our quality of life.
Our views of collapse are filtered through the lens of literary tragedy. The fall of Rome is our archetype, and it is viewed through the eyes of the aristocracy who lamented the loss of their power, and those who yearned to join the aristocracy in that power. After the sack of Rome, St. Jerome famously opined, “In the one city, the whole world dies.” Or take for another example the famous Old English poem, “The Ruin”:
The city buildings fell apart, the works
Of giants crumble. Tumbled are the towers
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten up by age.
And grit holds in its grip, the hard embrace
Of earth, the dead-departed master-builders,
Until a hundred generations now
Of people have passed by.
Why would an Anglo-Saxon, a barbarian, pine so for the ruins of the Roman occupation—an occupation that the Britons themselves routinely rose up against? The motivations of the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire was not hatred of Rome—far from it. The barbarians wanted to become Roman themselves. The allure of Romanitas spread around the world. The “barbarian invasions” were primarily matters of foederati —mercenaries—hired by Rome. The Senate then saw fit not to pay them—after all, they were only barbarians. Alaric led one of the ensuing rebellions when he sacked Rome in 410 CE, leading St. Jerome to make his famed lament. For the powerful, the loss of empire was the loss of power and privilege. For those far removed from its reality, Romanitas lingered as the aura of gods who could achieve such wonders, and the Empire was a mythological “golden age.”
But what of those masses who had to endure the actual empire itself? In “The Old Cause,” Joseph Stromberg neatly summarizes Tainter’s analysis of the Roman Empire.
Of the collapses which he describes, Tainter’s discussion of the Western Roman Empire is the most interesting, perhaps because it is the best-documented. The Roman Empire was initially successful because stolen goods from each conquest financed the next one. The broad logistical limits of the process were reached by the time of Augustus. Thereafter, territorial changes were minimal. Without further loot (a sort of primitive accumulation of statist capital), Roman rulers had to defend vast territories out of current revenues drawn from a contracting economy. In general, the Roman state crippled and ruined the developed east (Greece, Egypt) so as to hold onto the less productive west. Making citizens of all free men in the Empire (212 AD), in order to tax them, acknowledged the decline.
Faced with rising costs and declining revenues, emperors debased the coinage while trying desperately to extract taxes out of a demoralized people. But by the third century, taxes were eating up citizens’ capital and savings. In the following two centuries, further imperial inroads brought about “a drop in actual output.” Later emperors, from Diocletian onwards, undermined society’s capacity to pay at all. Some of these things, too, will sound familiar.
Collapse loomed, but collapse had definite advantages, as shown by its aftermath. The Germanic kings who replaced the empire in the west were better at defending their (smaller) territories against invaders and could do so more cheaply than the overextended empire. In North Africa, the Vandals (victims of a bad press) lowered taxes and economic well-being grew, until Justinian brought back Roman rule and, with it, imperial taxes. “Investment” in this lower level of political “complexity” paid for itself, so to speak, by being less costly (pp. 88-89). Collapse is not all bad: a disaster for the state apparatus may not be one for people as a whole. Devolution of power to smaller geographical units is “a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.”
Our fear of collapse is an irrational one; one that is projected onto us by our leaders, who truly do have something to fear. This is the same class of elites that are the drivers and architects of all the problems we have so far discussed (see thesis #10). Now that we can see that civilization did not give us medicine (see thesis #22), or knowledge (see thesis #23), or art (see thesis #24)—but it does give us illness (see thesis #21), makes our lives difficult, dangerous and unhealthy (see thesis #9), destroys the way of life to which we are most adapted (see thesis #7), and submits us to the unnecessary evil of hierarchy (see thesis #11)—the true nature of civilization should now be plain to see: it is the means by which elites maintain their power and privilege, at the cost of everyone else.
Collapse undoes civilization. As Tainter highlights, such incredibly high levels of complexity as we have today are a bizarre aberration in the history of our species. Collapse returns us to the normal state of affairs—a state of affairs humans are well-adapted to. The benefits of living a well-adapted life are things we, in our maladaptive civilization, usually dismiss as utopian daydreaming. Lower stress, less work, better food, more leisure, more art and music, less violence, more security, less disease, more health—such is the human birthright intended for Esau the Hunter, and stolen by our forebear, Jacob the Farmer. Our plight is not normal; it is what happens when an animal lives contrary to its nature. It is an intractably stressful position, and adaptations must be made to allow such an unnatural state to continue. Coercion and control by authorities must be accepted, to take the place of a natural adaptation to the situation which we lack. More work must be exerted to tasks we have no natural ability for. Much of our energy must be expended simply keeping us alive on a diet we can scarcely digest (and is still mostly toxic to us), while never exercising the faculties that two million years of evolution has led our bodies to expect just over the course of another leisurely day. Today, in the United States—the most complex society our species has ever developed—the number one killer, by far, is stress.
The result of collapse is a reversal of all the quality of life issues that civilization raises. Rather than being the exclusive domain of Western countries, people everywhere will enjoy the normal human lifespan. The epidemic diseases released by civilization are now released for good. Eventually, they will burn themselves out, but not for some time. Yet even this does not justify our efforts to sustain civilization; since we have passed our point of diminishing returns, the likelihood of developing a cure without the kind of massive paradigm shift a collapse entails becomes increasingly small. Moreover, collapse would also end the far-ranging travel and dense population centers such epidemics thrive on.
Living and working as humans are adapted to all have distinct advantages, as well. Though there is no doubt a great deal of exaggeration in Zerzan’s “Future Primitive,” (for instance, the example of the Dogon has been fairly effectively debunked,) the preponderance of evidence is too great to dismiss entirely.
The Andaman Islanders, west of Thailand, have no leaders, no idea of symbolic representation, and no domesticated animals. There is also an absence of aggression, violence, and disease; wounds heal surprisingly quickly, and their sight and hearing are particularly acute. They are said to have declined since European intrusion in the mid-19th century, but exhibit other such remarkable physical traits as a natural immunity to malaria, skin with sufficient elasticity to rule out post-childbirth stretch marks and the wrinkling we associate with aging, and an ‘unbelievable’ strength of teeth: Cipriani reported seeing children of 10 to 15 years crush nails with them. He also testified to the Andamese practice of collecting honey with no protective clothing at all; “yet they are never stung, and watching them one felt in the presence of some age-old mystery, lost by the civilized world.”
DeVries has cited a wide range of contrasts by which the superior health of gatherer-hunters can be established, including an absence of degenerative diseases and mental disabilities, and childbirth without difficulty or pain. He also points out that this begins to erode from the moment of contact with civilization.
Relatedly, there is a great deal of evidence not only for physical and emotional vigor among primitives but also concerning their heightened sensory abilities. Darwin described people at the southernmost tip of South America who went about almost naked in frigid conditions, while Peasley observed Aborigines who were renowned for their ability to live through bitterly cold desert nights “without any form of clothing.” Levi-Strauss was astounded to learn of a particular [South American] tribe which was able to “see the planet Venus in full daylight,” a feat comparable to that of the North African Dogon who consider Sirius B the most important star; somehow aware, without instruments, of a star that can only be found with the most powerful of telescopes. In this vein, Boyden recounted the Bushman ability to see four of the moons of Jupiter with the naked eye.
“In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” the proverb says. If these all seem like miraculous super-powers, they should not. We often marvel that all animals are faster and stronger than we; have we truly been so neglected by evolution? Is it not more reasonable to conclude that our faculties are equal to those of any other animal—if only we were to use them in such a manner as evolution has fitted them for us? The “amazing” abilities of foragers should not amaze us; rather, we should marvel at how much we have lost to live such a maladaptive life, and in trade for so little.
Most importantly, civilization reduces human life to a cog in an enormous machine, a large-scale, complex, industrial society far beyond the human brain’s capacity to understand on a human level. Instead, it can only be understood by analogy to a machine—and the human himself becomes mechanical. In a small scale, simple society, where individuals can know each other, they can be appreciated as individuals. We can form close groups that still respect our autonomy. Egalitarianism and rule by consensus becomes possible. In our present state, we are, ourselves, domesticated—and as with all the other animals we have afflicted with that fate, we domesticates are but a shadow of our proud, wild ancestors. Yet, beneath it all, we remain wild; and wild we shall be again. As Richard Heinberg writes in “The Primitivist Critique of Civilization”:
Many primal peoples tend to view us as pitiful creatures, too—though powerful and dangerous because of our technology and sheer numbers. They regard civilization as a sort of social disease. We civilized people appear to act as though we were addicted to a powerful drug—a drug that comes in the forms of money, factory-made goods, oil, and electricity. We are helpless without this drug, so we have come to see any threat to its supply as a threat to our very existence. Therefore we are easily manipulated—by desire (for more) or fear (that what we have will be taken away)—and powerful commercial and political interests have learned to orchestrate our desires and fears in order to achieve their own purposes of profit and control. If told that the production of our drug involves slavery, stealing, and murder, or the ecological equivalents, we try to ignore the news so as not to have to face an intolerable double bind.
The collapse will mean a sharp cut-off of that supply, and as we shall see in the next thesis, it will not come easily. The process of collapse itself will be the most terrible thing any animal has ever endured, as ten thousand years of damage are all paid back at once. But for those of us who are able to end our dependence on that “drug” gradually, rather than catastrophically, a whole new world awaits.