Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Impermanence of Limitlessness

On progress, imperialism and development: five quotes from The Age of Exuberance, by Jason Godesky:

1. Plato, describing the effects of wheat agriculture in ancient Greece:

What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man. ... Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true.

2. Toby Hemenway:

As researchers examine the Amazon more carefully, it appears that huge areas contain not only wild plants, but have been stocked with people-friendly cultivars of useful species. More and more, it looks as if the Amazon, like much of the Americas, was a carefully cultivated garden before the Europeans showed up and abused it into a thicketed wilderness. It appears that our idea of wilderness—black forest so dense you can barely walk, where people "take only photographs and leave only footprints"—is a notion burned into our psyches during an anomalous blip: the first two centuries following the Mayflower, in which the gardeners who had tended the Americas for millennia were exterminated, leaving the hemisphere to descend into an neglected tangle of "primeval forest." It's likely that this so-called intact forest had never existed before, since humans arrived here as soon as the glaciers receded and began tending the entire landmass with fire and digging stick. The first white explorers describe North America's forests as open enough to drive wagons through. Two centuries later these agroforests had deteriorated to the black tangles immortalized by Whitman and Thoreau.

Wilderness may be merely a European concept imposed on a depopulated and abandoned landscape. The indigenous people of the Americas were master terraformers, using a hard-learned understanding of ecological processes to preserve the fundamental integrity of natural systems while utterly transforming the land into a place where humans belonged and could thrive.

3. Charles Mann, author of 1491:

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as "presentism" by social scientists. But every one chose to be an Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live with the Indians. My ancestor shared their desire, which is what led to the trumped-up murder charges against him — or that's what my grandfather told me, anyway.

4. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in his Letters from an American Farmer:

There must be in the Indians’ social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of Nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches, yet he would secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot; and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind all you have given him and return with inexpressable joy to lie on the mats of his fathers.

5. William Catton:

[B]etween 1650 and 1850, a mere two centuries, the world's human population doubled. There had never before been such a huge increase in so short a time. It doubled again by 1930, in only eighty years. And the next doubling was to take only about forty-five years! As people and their resource-using implements became more numerous, the gap between carrying capacity and the resource-use load was inevitably closed, American land per American citizen shrank to a mere 11 acres—less than half the space available in Europe for each European just prior to Columbus's revolutionizing voyage. Meanwhile, per capita resource appetites had grown tremendously. The Age of Exuberance was necessarily temporary; it undermined its own foundations.

Most of the people who were fortunate enough to live in that age misconstrued their good fortune. Characteristics of their world and their lives, due to a "limitlessness" that had to be of limited duration, were imagined to be permanent. The people of the Age of Exuberance looked back on the dismal lives of their forebears and pitied them for their "unrealistic" notions about the world, themselves, and the way human beings were meant to live. Instead of recognizing that reality itself had actually changed—and would eventually change again—they congratulated themselves for outgrowing the "superstitions" of ancestors who had seen a different world so differently. While they rejected the old premise of changelessness, they failed to see that their own belief in the permanence of limitlessness was also an overbelief, a superstition.


  1. I like Hemenway a lot; he's an earnest, serious thinker with a real understanding of the workings of ecosystems (and the person through whom I learned permaculture's principles). I think it's good that Godesky reads him.

    From what I've read of Godesky, his views strike me as sensationalist. And his enthusiasm for primitivism strikes me as sophmoric (cf. his incredible beliefs about the relative betterness of the first affluent societies). I could be wrong in my assessment, but I understand his views essentially to boil down to a desire to return to a nomadic, horticulturalist existence, which is fine and dandy; but such an existence would preclude support for the number of people living currently--sustainable population density is far lower under that model--which is not fine an dandy.

    A more serious approach would be first to agitate to end the vast international superstructures that wipe out local agricultural infrastructure (for instance, subsidies in the developed nations which obliterate the production feasibility of the South, the malfeance of the IMF, etc) and then to work (all together now) to increase systems of autonomy, not least of which is localized food production.

    Simply saying oooh no the limitlessness is gonna end! is not an answer to our situation unless you are certain that a vast segment of life--human and otherwise, since I doubt hungry masses will pass quietly--need be destroyed as the current agricultural system breaks down (or doesn't; there are vast ghost acres that might be exploited undersea). And I am not certain of that. Moreover, if I were, I wouldn't be writing arguments to post on the web; I'd be packing a satchel and heading to the unpopulated hinterlands.

  2. warszawa9:42 AM

    I haven't read much by Godesky, but he strikes me as serious. It's not so much a "sophomoric ... enthusiasm for primitivism" as a sober description of what is very, very likely to happen: that capitalism will continue until it crashes disastrously, or until it crashes the planet - and that many, many people will die, most of them poor and unpowerful and landless. That's pessimism of the intellect, of the kind evinced - increasingly frantically - by nearly all professionals working in the life sciences today. It's also not unsupported by the history of the 20th century.

    My optimistic will tells me that all this - resource depletion, land and water wastage, wars, wars and more wars - can be avoided if we all make a massive worldwide effort immediately. That's what Al Gore says too. My two eyes tell me that I'm sitting here typing at an electricity-guzzling computer in a centrally-heated room. As is Godesky, probably, and as are you. As is everyone capable of accessing this website. None of us is storming the palaces yet. None of us is likely to, until we or our families are starving. And Al Gore still lives in a house with 18 rooms and 8 bathrooms.

    "I could be wrong in my assessment, but I understand his views essentially to boil down to a desire to return to a nomadic, horticulturalist existence, which is fine and dandy;"

    I think, on the contrary, he's said that that kind of lifestyle is no longer possible (for 7 billion people, soon to be 11 billion), even if it were desirable.

    "but such an existence would preclude support for the number of people living currently--sustainable population density is far lower under that model--which is not fine and dandy."

    It's certainly not fine and dandy, but with most of the world now industrialised and living under the capitalist imperative to expand constantly (in numbers and in consumption), it looks all too realistic. The San Francisco earthquake was not fine and dandy either, but it happened anyway. The disappearance of the Maldives is not fine and dandy for the people of those islands (or even for rich Western tourists in search of an 'exclusive' holiday destination reachable only by plane) but is very likely to take place in the next decade anyway.

  3. Re: an enthusiasm for primitivism, see the theses, especially 6, 7, 8, 12, 19, 21, 25, 26, 27.

    Since I have a stronger Marxist vein than a primitivist one, I tend to conceptualize the problems with societies with exploitation (of resources, of peoples) rather than with society itself. I mean here of course society that is 'more complex' than a traveling band.

    Now, I don't think that collapse will not happen, nor that it isn't even very likely. I just don't think that it is necessary, in causal, ethical, or aesthetic terms. It is the sense of necessity that I balk at; it stinks of inhumanity, and is founded on kernels of belief--not of science--which I do not share (like the "food race"; the originator of that theory, Daniel Quinn, bases it not on emprical inquiry but anecdotal stipulation).

    Re: the Maldives. I think that current predictions for sea level rise show that much more than the maldives are going to disappear in coming decades. I don't doubt that this will happen, or think that there is anything we can do about it. It doesn't follow that this will lead to a collapse of civilization, however.

    Maybe I am being stubborn, stupid, dense, or pedantic, or all of them.

  4. Essentially I guess I resist the entire anthropik website because they treat collapse as a foregone conclusion. Maybe this is only a rhetorical strategy. But it remains a sensationalist one.

    I take a more pragmatic approach: millions of people will die (if not billions) while trying to wring life from a deteriorating earth, further destroying it in the process. What can be done to lessen this? Local food collectives? Redefining property? Rhyzome groups? etc. etc.

  5. warszawa11:54 AM

    The Maldives were just a brief example, LF. There's Holland too, and much of Manhattan, and much of London, if the trailer for Gore's movie I saw at the cinema last night is telling the truth (and it is supported by nearly everything I've read). And of course lots and lots of invisible nameless expendable brown people in unfamous places in China, India and elsewhere. I mean 'expendable' to us too, de facto. We expend with them every day, and we're still here.

    "Essentially I guess I resist the entire anthropik website because they treat collapse as a foregone conclusion."

    I share that attitude of resistance. But it is horribly fascinating, not least because it draws on very credible information. And Godesky is certainly no fool.

    "What can be done to lessen this? Local food collectives? Redefining property? Rhyzome groups? etc. etc."

    These are all fine things, LF. I support all of them. Buy my veggies fro the local hippies or the Turkish market, and I separet my refuse carefully. I even installed (bloody expensive) low-energy lightbulbs in the flat long before Al Gore told me too. Meanwhile, we have unfettered global neoliberal capitalism, China and India "expanding their economies" at a rate of 10% yearly, and hardly anyone I know ever thinks twice about taking a plane. Which is not surprising when the train is a hell of a lot more expensive.

    By the time my adolescent daughter turns 45, it's (credibly) estimated that the planet's population will have increased by another four billion at least. That's another China, plus another India, plus another USA.

    These are things few people can bear to contemplate for very long (least of all me), so the chances of "the world" dealing with such issues humanely and on time do not seem hugely promising.

    But pessimism of versus optimism of, etc.

    (Full Disclosure: I have sinusitis right now, and it is not improving my weltanschauung. Antibiotics should help. Or maybe a short weekend break in warm southern climes...)

  6. Compared to me, you two are all smiles and sunshine. However things like the passivhaus show that a low energy lifestyle is perfectly practical and 'the poor' could be sorted if they're given half a chance, like they do here

  7. livingfossil, I see you've found The Thirty Theses. You should read them—I'm not romanticizing primitive societies whatsoever, I'm merely iterating the facts about them that are so often glossed over in our progressivist mythology. Nor do I take collapse as a foregone conclusion. You will note that much of the Thirty Theses is dedicated to proving why collapse is inevitable, imminent, and while horrible, still preferable to the alternative. In your first post, you used common objection #5, which, to summarize, is a bit of a reversal. Primitivism is a response to civilization's unsustainability, not a cause of it.

  8. Jason, as I am subject to wage-slavery, I don't have time at the moment to go into great depth discussing the logical structure of your theses. I will do so in a bit, post it to the bloggy-wog, and send you an email so that you can see what I come up with.

    I have looked at the theses before; but I will take a deeper look in the next week, or so.

    Anyway, till sometime soon.

  9. Jason: Alright, I posted a little piece of my disagreement, focused on the notion of the food race. More to follow, as time and will allows.

    But, to clarify, I don't think that primitivism is a threat to society ('a cause of civilization's unsustainability') any more than I think, say, Quakerism is. Of course, in your explanation of common objection #5 where you claim that mass killing would perhaps be the best way forward ("Ultimately, genocide might be the kindest method, just as it is kind to deliver a coup de grace to a dying animal" notwithstanding the fact that you later qualify it as "unspeakably wicked") leads me to believe I wouldn't want to live in your relative area. But call me set in my ways.

  10. Anonymous11:47 PM

    If I may jump in here, I'd like to quote a fragment of Rick Reese, which I find provocative:

    "Today, a number of dedicated pioneers are sincerely devoted to the Holy Grail of sustainable agriculture. I've listened to a number of them, paying close attention to their every word. I have found that many of them are filled with high hopes, but their plans contain design defects.

    "In particular, I paid close attention to the flow of nutrients in their designs. In these designs, what you typically find is that the soil in location A is fortified by transferring mulch, minerals, and manure from location B. Or sometimes they apply manure from critters in location A whose feed comes from location B. So location A benefits at location B's expense, because the soils of location B are depleted. This is not sustainable. We need to remember that all of the early agricultural civilizations self-destructed by using low-tech organic farming — they were Stone Age people, the plow had not been invented yet, and all horses and oxen were still wild and free."

  11. Occassia (odd calling you that, but I suppose we must resort to handles), it seems to me that Reese's formulation would logically preclude any growth on any ground as unsustainable. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no closed system that is self-sustaining (i.e. locations A or B), just as in reality there is no closed system (the earth is not a closed a system either). Certainly, at any given point, there is a level of mineral wealth, etc, to go around, but to assume that nature, Gaia, what-have-you, restricts its movement to location A or B is silly.

    But I think that this is tertiary to the point. The point is to build (open)systems that work to enrich locales, not to deplete them. It seems to me that this is possible, not impossible.