Monthly Archives: January 2018
Kotke’s ideas on the destructiveness of “civilization” and what we can do about it
The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future by William H. Kötke, 1993
Agriculture began the destruction of our natural earth wealth, and industrial society, which will begin a swift collapse in the 2020s, is providing the finishing blow. The human trend toward empire, which travels under the euphemism of civilization, has been in existence for 10,000 years, only 1% of human existence. The culture of empire is characterized by ecological imbalance caused by cities, centralization, hierarchy, patriarchy, militarism, and materialism. We find aspects of this cultural form among the Aztecs and Mayans of Mesoamerica, the Incas of Peru, certain African kingdoms, and the Egyptian dynasties, but the most virulent strains of this cultural pathology developed in China, the Indus river valley, and in Central Asia among Indo-Europeans. All of these areas are now ecologically damaged.
Many of the Greek wars of conquest were to gain new forests for use in building warships. Greece and Rome, then the Arabs and Turks destroyed the ecology of North Africa. At one time 600 colonial cities stretched from Egypt to Morocco, and the area provided Rome with 2/3 of its wheat. Now much of the area is barren and eroded and can barely support goats. It’s no accident that the diet of these former empires is now based on goats, grapes, and olives. This is ecological poverty food (goats, grapes, and olives can subsist on denuded and dry soils).
In pre-industrial days plowing vegetation back into the earth and manure from draft and food animals slowed the soil’s depletion. When artificial fertilizers become too costly to purchase, and/or the easily extracted petroleum from which they’re made is exhausted, the world will face starvation, because its soils are dead. If chemical fertilizers were eliminated at once, world food production would drop by one-third.
Compaction of soils is another problem. When weight is put on soil, its pores are crushed, interfering with its ability to breathe and hold water. Water runs off as compaction increases, causing the erosion of topsoil. Plowing with heavy equipment causes much compaction, as does trampling by confined livestock. Plowing also dries out the soil and increases salinization.
The failure of water to infiltrate to underground water supplies affects the hydrology of entire regions. Even in a semi-arid region, if the topsoil is intact and vegetative cover exists to absorb a large percentage of the rainfall, water will seep into the subsoil. When soils are abused, and the spiral of deterioration is triggered, the flood/drought cycle begins. Floods occur when water runs off rapidly rather than infiltrating, followed by drought because springs haven’t been fed. As the planet deteriorates, droughts and floods increase. Erosion, desertification, toxification, and non-agricultural uses will eat up one-fifth of the world’s arable land between 1975 and 2000, and another one-fifth will go by 2025.
Wild herbivores don’t overgraze – they migrate, and each species eats different plants. Large herbivores never existed in Australia until they were imported by Europeans. When aborigines decided to return to their lands in the outback near Ernabella and Papunya recently, they found that 60% of the food plants for which they had traditionally foraged were extinct, and the rest were greatly diminished in numbers because of overgrazing by feral cattle, horses, camels, goats, and rabbits. The manure of these animals is wasted, because there are no native insects or microbes to break it down.
Deforestation and overgrazing eventually produce desertification. While the natural undisturbed deserts of the earth are healthy, thriving, diverse ecosystems with many types of plants and animals, deserts created by poor land use are damaged ecosystems comparatively devoid of life. Deserts are usually created by destroying the vegetation of formerly semi-arid lands, but sometimes they’re the result of deforestation.
Sixty-one percent of the world’s drylands are desertified (defined as a loss of more than 25% soil nutrient with consequent decline of the productivity of biomass). In 1980 the percentage of some dryland areas that had become desertified were: Mediterranean Europe: 30%, North America: 40%, South America and Mexico: 71%, southern Africa: 80%, Mediterranean Africa: 83%, west Asia: 82%, south Asia: 70%, the USSR: 55%, and China and Mongolia: 69%. Desertification threatens a third of the world’s land surface. While deforestation and devegetation caused by clearing land for the plow contribute to desertification, as does firewood gathering, the chief culprit is overgrazing. In every area of the world where herding is a significant industry, desertification is spreading.
European countries currently use three times more water than returns to natural sources. In North America the groundwater outtake is twice the replenishment rate.
Forests are the lungs of the earth, exhaling oxygen and inhaling carbon dioxide; they also build soil, absorb moisture, and translate sunlight into biomass more efficiently than any other ecosystem on earth. Forests create rain, as trees send moisture into the atmosphere. Native forests provide habitat for the largest number of species per acre of any ecosystem, except possibly a coral reef. The few native agriculturalists remaining in tropical rainforests can easily grow more food per unit of energy input than the modern industrial system. Swidden agriculture, which rotates small clearings in the forest, is one of the most energy-efficient food-producing systems known. And there’s no damage to the environment, because of area rotation and because domesticated and semi-domesticated garden plants feather off into the mature forest, creating no real break in the ecosystem.
More than a third of the earth was forested prior to the culture of empire, and only about a tenth of these forests remain. Mexico was originally 50% forested. It’s lost one-fourth of its forest lands in each century since the conquest, much of it to fire mine smelters. No Mexican forests remain in their original condition.
Acid rain is killing forests, and, in time, whole ecosystems as the growth and regeneration rate of trees slows. Northeastern United States, southern Canada, areas around Mexico City, areas of Russia, Scandinavia, and Europe are most affected. Acid rain also lowers the productivity of many crops and causes human allergies, emphysema, and heart disease.
Forests balance and moderate meteorological systems. Without them we can expect heat and aridity interspersed with torrential rain, unusual winds, tornadoes, and cyclones.
The tribal Tsembaga people of the New Guinea highlands raise sweet potatoes at an expenditure of 1 kilocalorie of energy for each 16 kilocalories of food produced. Approximately 20 kilocalories of energy are required to produce one kilocalorie of food in the industrial system, and this doesn’t include the deterioration in the food’s nutritive value and disease caused by pollution.
There are basically 10 food plants grown in the world today when looked at on a volume basis. Wheat, rice, and corn make up half of the food consumed on the planet, with barley, oats, sorghum, and millet making up the next quarter. If we add beans and potatoes, these 10 species of plants are the essential basis of world agriculture.
As of 1989, one in three U.S. citizens will have cancer in their lifetime. In 1900 cancer was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., responsible for 3% of deaths. Today it ranks second, and causes 20% of deaths.
The United States destroyed almost 5 million acres of tropical rainforest in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (more if other parts of southeast Asia are included). Bomb craters destroyed the topsoil of over 300,000 acres, and half of the country’s biologically rich coastal mangrove swamps were destroyed as well. In 1943 44% of Vietnam was still forested, in 1975 29%, and in 1983 23.6%. Because of deforestation the country, whose population has doubled in the last 40 years, now experiences drought/flood syndrome.
Fishing is down globally, and the phytoplankton of the ocean that produces 70% of the world’s oxygen is being adversely affected by pollution and the thinning of the ozone layer. The continental shelves produce the basic populations of life in the sea, with bays, wetlands, estuaries, mangrove swamps, coral reefs, and other coastline sanctuaries incubating that life. Garbage, sewage, chemical poisons, and oil spills concentrate near coastlines – 85% percent of ocean pollution originates on land. The run-off of heavy metals from the continents into the oceans is now 2½ times the natural level for mercury; 4 times for manganese; 12 times for zinc, copper, and lead; 30 times for antimony; and 80 times for phosphorous. Toxic wastes have been found in the deepest part of the ocean and in most ocean habitats. The United States, some European countries, Japan, and others have dumped radioactive waste into the ocean. An estimated 6-8 million tons of petroleum reaches the ocean each year from leaks in refineries and drilling platforms, runoff from land, dumping from ships, and the breaking up of tankers. In the United States 8 billion gallons of municipal sewage is dumped into coastal waters per day. One-third of the shell-fishing areas of the country are closed because of toxic contamination. Commercial fishing fleets dump 52 million pounds of plastic packing material and 298 million pounds of plastic fishing gear, nets, lines, and buoys into the ocean every year. Shoreline garbage accounts for millions more pounds of plastic. 100,000 marine mammals die each year from entanglement in and ingestion of plastics.
Ecological sinks, areas where life function has broken down completely, include extremely desertified areas, bodies of water where eutrophication has used up all the oxygen, and lakes killed by acid rain. Ecological sinks are now being created within the oceans, particularly along coastlines and in enclosed seas. Huge algae blooms and dead fish, seals, and dolphins washing ashore in many areas signal the approaching death of the oceans.
People are concerned about larger life forms, many of whose remnants are “saved” in zoos, but few know that microorganisms, insects, and microscopic plant species are going, too. Mammals are only 1% and vertebrates only 3% of all species, and they’re all dependent on microorganisms. Europe has hosted industrial society the longest. In France 57% of the remaining mammal species are threatened with extinction, as are 58% of the bird species, 39% of the reptile species, 53% of the amphibian species, and 27% of the fish species.
There are 70,000 different artificially produced chemicals, with at least 1,000 new ones produced each year. The industry-dominated US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies 35,000 of these as harmful or potentially harmful. Only a handful of the more popularly known toxins have been thoroughly tested for their carcinogenic, tetragenic (producing fetal deformities), or mutagenic (producing inherited mutations) properties. Most toxins that have been approved for use in the U.S. haven’t been tested for their cancer-causing or birth defect-causing properties. Years ago the U.S. Congress ordered the agency to begin testing already approved compounds for these dangers, but by 1990 only 6 had completed the process. Complete health hazard assessments have been done on perhaps 10% of the pesticides produced, 2% of the cosmetics, 18% of drugs and drug excipients (binders), and 5% of food additives.
Seventy percent of hazardous waste comes from the chemical and petrochemical industries. Production of plastics, soap, synthetic rubber and fibers, fertilizers, medicines, detergents, cosmetics, paints, adhesives, explosives, pesticides, and herbicides either produces toxic by-products, the products are toxic themselves, or both. As with radiation exposure, cancers after exposure to toxic chemicals often don’t appear until 20-30 years after exposure, so it’s difficult to prove what caused what.
Underground aquifers are being poisoned with industrial toxins by the deliberate injection of waste into wells, a common industrial practice, by percolation from the surface, and seepage from landfills and nuclear installations. Agriculture also poisons aquifers.
Toxins come to us in water, air, and food. In the World War II era one in 30 Americans died of cancer – now it’s between one in 4 and one in 5. The rate of birth defects has doubled since 1950.
“Civilization” represents a lowering of living standards, using the values of longevity, food, labor, and health for people outside the elite class. It’s the ultimate in materialism to say that we’ve made great progress because we invented airplanes, computers, and satellites, and went to the moon in a rocket ship, when billions are dying on a dying planet.
With agriculture, humans began to take more than their share and live as parasites on the earth. Eventually they believed it was their role to control the cosmos. Conquest is piracy, and ownership and differential profits are theft, according to Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.
We live in a culture of such limited psychological rewards that children kill themselves rather than grow up in it. (Suicide is the number one cause of death in the age group 15-25.)
We must cease investing in civilization and create a positive and adaptive new culture.
It may be conservatively estimated that during the 150 years between 1780 and 1930 world tribal populations were reduced by at least 30 million as a result of the spread of industrial civilization. A more realistic estimate would be 50-100 million, as diseases raced ahead of the conquerors. This incredible mass murder occupies little space in history books. The genocide of native tribal hunter-foragers continues today in India, Bangladesh, southeast Asia, Paraguay, Chile, and the Amazon jungle – carried out by militaries, industrial interests, and settlers.
Book Two: The Seed of the Future
The self-regulation of each species gives the ecosystem its balance. Balance and cycle are the basic processes of the cosmos, as are diversity and symbiotic relationships. Relationship is a matter of individual responsibility, founded in intuition that precedes the analytical mind. Most natural cultures believe that we are conscious participants in world processes, that the thinking, intention, and balance of each person has an effect on the whole.
Spend time in nature, opening your self to its communication. Have this experience as often as possible, and gather these images into your memory. Set up land-based seed communities outside the money economy. Decentralization and permaculture, living in balance with nature. Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution describes ‘do-nothing’ farming – no plows, no chemicals, no weeding. Seeding and harvesting follow natural patterns. The process builds the soil, so that ¼ acre can support 5-10 people with little work.
Books serve as an introduction, but there’s no substitute for observation.
The natural history of one’s area may be difficult to discover, depending on the length of its colonization, but understanding it helps you gauge the land’s potential and identify its climax ecosystem (which probably no longer exists). Understanding the lifeways of native people in the area is equally important, including tools, materials, migration patterns, ethnobotany, sacred places, and myths. Get identification manuals for plants, trees, birds, animals, mushrooms, fish, and other life forms, and watch their habits. Where do plants grow? What soils do they like? Examine the soil carefully – smell and taste it – in different areas and at different times. Keep track of moisture through the seasons. Study undisturbed areas. Begin to create seed inventories. Store them carefully with notes on plant description, place of residence, date, etc. Your goal is to create a facsimile ecosystem as close to the complex original as possible, and let Gaia do the rest in terms of healing and growth.
Our solutions aren’t political, religious, or ideological – they’re simply the patterns of life.
One of the most fundamental concepts of permaculture is to arrange plants, animals, insects, and whatever life one can find so that each provides services for the other, allowing a self-energizing pattern to begin. Beavers are the hydrologists of nature, so help them resume their rightful place on the watershed (at the top, or they’ll be flooded out lower down). Fence riparian habitat off from grazing. Plant trees, bushes, and grasses. In general, the most efficient grass seeding is to seed the ridges, and let the grass move down the slopes. Know the healing succession of plants and help it along. Small depressions, organic material, and soil aeration help seeds germinate. Dam gullies so plants can become established and spread. Sandy soils can be fertile (the sand acts as a mulch). If animals come and eat your crops, eat them.
Permanent agriculture (permaculture) is based in perennial plants and plants that can easily reseed themselves.
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Arid-Land Permaculture, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for A Sustainable Future, and Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation by Gary Paul Nabhan
Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants by Stephan Facciola