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More quotes, personal philosophy, and civilization

September 27, 2009

In this, Radical Traditionalism is similar to one type of nihilism. Since the word “nihilism” means different things to different people, it is important to define this type of nihilism as an outlook and a perceptual tool, not a conclusion or an ideal. Those who hold Nothingness up as an ideal, and as an assessment of life itself, are probably better referred to as “fatalists” because they do not believe any value can be found, and therefore believe their choices are irrelevant (a fancy way of giving up). Outlook nihilists believe nihilism is a way of removing illusion and looking into reality itself, from which we are separated by the frailty of (a) our own perception and (b) the errors of our interpretation of external reality. Where conclusion-nihilists take up nihilism as a means of ending further analysis of their existence, outlook nihilists use it as a means to look deeper into existence.

Nihilism of this form could be expressed this way: Upon waking up, I realized that nothing had any inherent value except for its presence as part of reality itself, such as a chair being useful for sitting upon, or food useful for eating because eating prolongs life and thus perception. While I was tempted to stay in this valueless state, I realized that to uphold a valueless state was in itself a value, therefore a valueless state cannot exist for long. For this reason, instead of rejecting reality, I rejected values outside of reality, and now try to see things only for what they are. This is the outlook nihilism of an experienced person.1

Nihilist

I don’t think it’s at all difficult to see what drew me to this philosophy.  It simply makes sense; it made sense to me when I first started reading this stuff and it still makes sense now.  It’s a solid foundation for building ideas upon.

I thought, at first conception, that it would be difficult to do this post.  A while ago, when I first thought it’d be a good idea to dump all of these text files, I figured it’d be very easy to just copy and paste some once in a while to pass along knowledge I’ve come by with the hope that it would help someone else.  As I re-read more of them I started to come to some of the files which contained more controversial ideas, and I knew I’d have to give them a proper framing, lest I come across wrong and be cast aside to reside on the fringe of the fringe.  A few of the files contained ideas which I now recognize as simply garbage (one, which I saved for other reasons, suggested “breeding out” immigrant populations, but in the same article talked about how overpopulation is a growing concern) and I will not post them here.  Some contain  ideas which are just hard truths, still others have a mix of good and bad.  In posting these quotes anyway I feel I can do a great deal of mental clarification for myself, and in the process create a personal “manifesto” that few will read.

If he fails, or dies (hopefully not from painting), oh well, that happens. What separates the active nihilist from the passive nihilist is that he always reevaluates the values and morals, to find the most realistic options and use them flexibly in life. Another way of describing this is to imagine values like tools (“Today it would be beneficial to use my fishing rod to catch some salmon in the river”), instead of absolute commandments (“Thou shalt always use your fishing rod as soon as you see a river”).2

I’m still a nihilist, and I don’t want to trash-talk anyone.  While two years ago I was privately trying to get more writing up on ANUS.com (The American Nihilist Underground Society—and yes, they know the acronym spells a funny word) and Corrupt.org, I was also finding it difficult to let my affiliation be known among the people I know.  At the time I thought this was merely cowardice on my part. I thought my identification with the philosophy expounded on these sites was in the range of 90%, that I was simply being a wuss since some ideas were (are) tough truths, and I was afraid that the 10% I didn’t like would wrongly categorize me.  If this would have been the case I would still, to this day, attribute the failure to brand myself to cowardice, but as time has went on and as I have read, learned, and exposed myself to more ideas, I’ve noticed there were inconsistencies and inexplicable emphases on certain ideas.  The cognitive dissonance within me—the thought that I was a champion of (nearly) everything they taught put against the public me, who didn’t want to be found out as an enemy of orthodoxy—wasn’t at all caused by mere wussiness.  It took me a long while to realize this, and only recently have I felt confident in my ability to explain where the discrepancies arose.

Nihilism, in its purest definition, is a belief in nothing at all. When we unpack that concept philosophically however, the word that stands out over time is “belief” and not “nothing.” Nihilism can be either a lack of belief, or a firm belief in “nothingness.” Since believing in something that is not extant makes little sense, we narrow in on the first definition: a lack of belief, or an alternate process of finding a path in life than belief. Of all philosophical ideas, nihilism is the grand leveller that reduces all unnecessary thoughts, dispenses all illusions, and returns us to only what we can demonstrably find to be true — a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction. 7

Again, I am still a nihilist.  I still value a great many things I learned from the material on ANUS.  I am a nihilist in the sense that I use an empty slate as a tool.  Every day when I wake up I remember that I have to see things for what they are, and the best way to do that is to strip away all filters.  Of course I can’t abandon what I learned the day before—that would be thoroughly stupid—but I can only add in what I learned the day before after I’ve gone through the process of building on nothing once again.

Politico

We say these right/left splits are arbitrary because they serve no purpose in getting us closer to the truth. From all indications, one or the other wins and, having a partial picture of what must be done, is replaced by the other. And the changes? With the right you get an explicit link to heavy industry (Reagan) but with the left you get a clandestine assumption of the necessity of the entertainment media (Clinton). The right tends to focus on foreign policy/defense, cultivating industry and protecting families; the left will explore civil rights, welfare and protecting individualism. The arbitrary swing factor that causes these paths to differentiate themselves in order to market themselves becomes influential here, and we see areas where these ideas overlap ignored in favor of dramatic conflict. They both play the roles: the right as the towering Authority Figure come to drive away evils, and the left as the slightly-hip older brother who hangs out with black people (knows the “secret handshakes”) and offers a clumsily rolled joint when the parents are gone. We say the result is arbitrary becomes one comes to power, cancels out what the other did, and then is in turn replaced. The result is schizophrenic policy: we can expect no consistent leadership and each side has items it will not change, taboos not because of fear of consequence but fear of public image: if the left lets off of its civil rights agenda for one moment, it will be seen as less lefty and lose many constituents; if the right accidentally cheered a gay pride parade, many of its constituents would pull back. This is not a response to logic, but to image, and this is the root of the exaggerated division between the political houses: we must appear unique and as alternatives to whatever is in power.

This, if memory serves me, was one of the first things I read about political “positions,” or affiliations, that resonated deeply within me.  I copy-and-pasted it into a text file and I still have it saved as “I HATE POLITICS.”  It’s a good thing, too, since I can’t find the source article online.

I always had a feeling that politics was just a game or a show, that the men and women (mostly men) I knew from the news were players or actors, and at the end of it all no significant change would be made.  I could never identify with any politician—I still can’t in anything more than a superficial way, and I probably won’t for a very long time.  I started to realize that this was the message I was waiting for, that this was what I felt.  I started to tell people that I didn’t believe politics could solve any real problem when they’d ask about my “political views” (a  phrase I’ve always disliked, but since people can’t always think of an alternative, I tolerate it) and that “hundreds, if not thousands of years worth of damage have accumulated in the collective human psyche”; if that couldn’t be fixed, nothing would change.

We define politics as the process of convincing large numbers of people to do something. No belief system can escape politics, unless it deals with the individual outside of civilization, at which point writing it down is hypocrisy. For this reason, although nihilism is a mental discipline and not a political platform, there are some areas in which nihilism will influence modern politics. The first and most obvious is that, unlike most who are either bought off or blind to the inadequacies of the status quo, nihilists will recognize that it is a deathmarch: an illogical path that will ultimately lead to failure [all bold print in quoted passages, from this point onward, is emphasized by me and not the original author(s)], but because saying so is taboo and unprofitable, we all go along with it even though we march to our doom. Look into the future. Our earth will be more, and not less, polluted, because no matter what we do there will be more people than ever using technology and producing waste. A consequence of our population growth will be a lack of natural spaces to enjoy, because every single continent on earth will be divided up into salable land and covered in fences and concrete to the degree that unbroken wilderness will not exist. Nations will no longer convey a cultural identity or heritage, so we will all be citizens of the world and have what is offered in default of culture, namely Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and re-runs of “Friends.” Bred for jobs and obedience, we will lose the best of our people because they are no longer relevant in a world that prizes money and docility over leadership, wisdom, and independent thinking. Endless commercial messages will adorn our cities and, because there is no culture, most will spend time watching television or engaging in equally debasing virtual entertainment. Since leadership will be useless, most people will have such flexible spines that they will be utter whores, and conversation will be worthless and friendship a meaningless term. Won’t be much to live for, so instead, we’ll survive, and hope “someday” it will get better.

The cause of all of this disaster will have been a fundamental inability to deal with reality. Our society, wealthy and powered by cheap fossil fuels, grew at an exponential rate with an inverse relationship to the quality of intelligence, leadership ability and holistic moral outlook of its population. We’ve bred a horde of fools and bred out the quality intelligences, replacing them with “geniuses” like Jay Gould and Bill Clinton. Since consumption is the only logic we understand, we have consumed much of our planet, and focus on symbolic factors like global warming in order to avoid looking at the enormity of the problem. Our governments get better with their computers, cameras and social security numbers in order to ensure that dissidents are more quickly quashed, and they’ve found better methods than locking them up; instead, they proclaim them as taboo-breakers, and let the rest of the citizens boycott them as dangerous to future business. All of this comes too much attention paid to the popularity of ideas, and a denial that what is popular rarely corresponds to an intelligent response to reality. We’ve had leftist governments, and rightist governments, and neither have dealt with this underlying problem.

Nihilism is not a bullet-pointed list, but there are some clearly definable ideas that nihilists will embrace while others do not. Extreme ecology makes sense if you wish to preserve your planet’s life, which directly contributes to maintenance of its climate and land. Localization makes sense if you wish to spare us all from having to find one rule for diametrically opposed ideologues. Preservation of national identity, and granting local communities the right to exclude or murder morons and perverts and other unwanted detritus of the human gene pool, also makes sense. Giving the individual greater existential autonomy than a society of products to buy and jobs at which to serve is more realistic than assuming we can all be crammed into the same mould and out will come perfect, uniform citizens. Realizing that commerce as a motivator does not address the subtle and long-term issues of our society liberates us from having to constantly manipulate each other through money. Finally, recognition that popularity of an idea has no bearing on its fitness for our collective survival frees us from the tyranny of the crowd, and lets us have leaders again, who instead of finding out what is popular and espousing it, find out what is practical and pursue it. Nihilism ends the society of illusions by shattering the power of the Crowd. Societies age and die when popularity becomes more important than pragmatism, and nihilism offers us a way to “go under” this process by removing value and discovering it anew. In this sense, nihilism is immediately political, although it is unlikely that an organized nihilist political presence will be seen.3

Living Thing

I offer Terror. Even worse, I offer that Terror, Warfare, Death, Suffering, Evisceration and Sodomy are inevitable parts of life. Even more, they’re necessary; conflict shapes the world. My idea is that suffering should mean something, and some ideal should be achieved by it. Unnecessary suffering is pointless and annoying.4

6.3 I’m against anything that causes death or lack of freedom to anybody.

Obviously, you are then against the current system, which causes total death and total lack of freedom in the form of massive social collapse. Even further, you must be against nature itself, in which conflict and death occur, and our freedom is limited by physical factors (abilities, resources) as well as our own mental limits. In fact, what are you talking about?5

Better Living Thing

One of the best aspects of nihilism and cosmic idealism alike is their rejection of absolute moral judgments, meaning any type of rule that applies without context and to all people alike. The simplest example is the hypocrisy over murder in the West; we say murder is wrong, and then murder people for committing murder. A nihilist avoids the initial error by never saying “murder is wrong,” but instead, electing to murder those who threaten whatever values are held dear. A rapid stratification appears among human beings at this point, because depending on where we are on the intelligence-moral character scale, we value different things. Those who are at the higher end of such a scale have valuable opinions, and the rest… should probably be oppressed.

[…]

A modern comparison to this is any form of martial art. The students are taught slowly to take on the powers of a fully capable fighter, so that alongside raw technique they may absorb years of wisdom – and be sent away by their teachers if they are psychopaths or otherwise defective. Just as one does not teach post-911 Arab students to take off in planes but not land them, one does not teach nutcases to kill with a punch. The caste system is part of this karmic order in that it is recognized that, with each advance in breeding, the design of the next generation changes; those designs are most likely to function as their ancestors did. As a result, one creates groups like aristocracies which are bred for the finest traits and pass them along to their offspring.

[…]

This system works surprisingly well. Outside of a few defectives, most people have the abilities of their parents, if developed by education. Even more importantly, they have the moral inclination and traits of their parents, and therefore make similar types of decisions. The power of nihilism and postmorality in ancient societies was kept among those who had for generations proven themselves able to wield it; this is a more effective system than our modern one, which supposes that “anyone” could be effective with this kind of power, so we give it to them and hope they don’t screw up. Remember that during election year.

What we refer to as postmoralism was designed for elites by breeding, as it is a complex system. Essentially, traditional “Western” (Judeo-Christian) morality is designed around simple rulesets: evil is bad, murder is evil, therefore if you murder, you are evil and we should murder you. Postmoral tradition, as mentioned above, does not waste time banning murder. It asks, simply, was the murder fortunate? which means: did the murder increase the elegance and graceful function of a natural order? If one has murdered a child molestor, order is increased and made better; if you murder a child who otherwise would likely done great things, you are probably a psychopath and should be murdered.6

Revolutionary

Society must be changed—this should be clear.

However, the change we believe in is not some kind of utopian master plan to save everyone from chaos and destruction. That’s too late. We want to focus on the good-hearted, creative and assertive characters of our society. They must lead us into a better future. We can’t save all of our civilization, neither is that wanted, since most of it today is all-decay. You don’t save a fruit by spraying it all over with pesticide; you pick out the rotten parts and protect what’s healthy. Most intelligent people I’ve met have been depressed simply because they’ve taken on the entire burden of our society and spent their free time trying to figure out how to save it all. They usually start to look positively at things when I tell them that they simply can’t save it all. We shouldn’t save it all. We should focus on what we want to save, which means our change includes selective parts of what we like about our civilization, that we believe can be saved. Think of our civilization as a burning house: if you try to save every single thing from burning up, both you and the things you wanted to save will burn up. Smart people run in, get the few things they really care about, and then run out as quickly as they can, before the whole thing falls apart. After that you can build a new house. You didn’t “prevent” entropy; you escaped its self-destruction by actively participating in life.2

However, I don’t believe we have “liberty” in the West. We have the freedom to get some stupid job, commute to work and spend most of our money on health insurance, property insurance, life insurance, etc. to pay for the constant instability of modern society and the pollution that is steadily giving us all cancers. I don’t believe we have liberty of thought, as clearly some things are so taboo you’ll lose your job and your house and be forced to live in the tumor of the open streets. I also don’t believe our society offers the “liberty” of thinking about any social order but its own. So, in short, “liberty” is a word, and it can mean something or mean nothing, or be simply ambiguous, which benefits the person using the word but not the person reacting to it.

We live in a “free and democratic” society – for a critique of “freedom,” see above. To all you defenders of democracy, I’d like one answer: all of us acknowledge that there are hordes of stupid people out there. Why do you want to give them political power? Shouldn’t we concentrate power in the hands of the most able? I’m not sure I care about having a “democratic” society, either – I’d rather have a society of shared culture and values, so we don’t have to create a vast governmental bureaucracy to force some kind of abstract values upon us all.

It’s possible that we’ve all been misled regarding this “freedom” and “liberty” and “democracy” thing. Under these ideals, have we had fewer wars – no, we’ve had more destructive wars, although they may be less frequent. Have we had a better life? We have better technology, including medicine, but it still screws up all the time and brings us side effects like pollution and cancer. Are people smarter and braver now? Consensus says no. Is life more meaningful? Etc.

All they have to do in order to fool us is to get us asking the wrong questions. While we’re all kvetching around about liberty, freedom, and other promises of a used-camel salesperson, our inner life and our culture life – what holds our society together – is disintegrating. Therefore, there’s always an enemy, and always a war on to eliminate the enemies of “freedom.” Wouldn’t you feel silly if you got manipulated by this rhetoric?4

As one ancient writer said, “It is easy to get rid of a bad king, but a bad idea takes longer.”

[…]

It is for this reason that democracies are slow to react to anything but blatant crisis and allow internal decay to overcome them. When popularity of ideas becomes more important than how realistic or intelligent they are, illusion and denial are sure to follow. Popularity is the opposite of logicality: most people prefer pleasant illusions to the more difficult truths, as well as preferring immediate reward to long-term betterment.5

Different Living Thing

Many more good points could be made, but an important question is: What do we conclude after we have made these incredible realizations?  Other important questions include: Are these views consistent?  Are they sane, logical, and truly applicable to the real world?  What is necessary?  What is desirable?  Have we checked for errors? can we?

Most of the ideas I’ve quoted are ideas I agree with, either in part or in whole, for reasons that should be obvious.  But now I’ll point out the inconsistencies.

First there is race.  I haven’t provided any quotes that have anything to do with race.  I understand the ANUS/Corrupt stance on race and feel that most of the writers have sane, logical views on the subject—this is not the problem.  The problem is, I feel, that there is much too much emphasis and attention directed toward the subject and no real explanation for why.  Aside from some petty objections—fear of a nihilist viewpoint, claims and allegations of “elitism,” and so on—I think racial ideas have to be the most-complained-about.  The letters they receive, at least the ones they put up, show how often they are questioned.  People seem to find something about race very quickly, whether reading the metal reviews, reading news items, the longer essays, or surfing the message boards, which also indicates how common the word race is.  The (over-)emphasis of race doesn’t seem consistent with a nihilist’s view.

Here’s my point: One can only read about how race shouldn’t be a taboo subject, how someone isn’t a racist but a “racialist,” how we cannot deny genetics, and so on, before one gets (at best) annoyed or (at worst) starts to think it’s suspiciously pushed to the forefront.  How many times do we get to say “nigger” in a truly derogatory way and then follow it up with “It’s OK; I have black friends” before we’re found out as bigots?

However, I don’t want to make it look like this is my only issue, because it’s not.  I do think any pluralist society will become dysfunctional, if it doesn’t start that way to begin with, because I think any government that has to make a single set of laws for people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds will be inconsistent and unfair by its very nature.  This isn’t even to mention how it will probably be racist by default anyway.

Another problem I have is the strange belief in a certain kind of progress while flaming all others—it’s simply saying two different things out of both sides of the mouth at the same time.  There is a reverence for “great” civilizations of the past, for “great” men, for “great” times.  The concentration on creating sane values makes sense, but setting a goal to leave these ugly, stupid, backward times behind doesn’t necessarily.  They say they want to transcend modern society, to go beyond it—that is, become one with the world, to create a sane society that exists in harmony and that can work indefinitely—but much of the language suggests something different: that they want to ascend from it, to start from where we are (low) and move to somewhere better (high).  Admittedly, my objection here isn’t as solid.

I believe it comes from an emphasis, perhaps an overemphasis, on the Nietzschean concept of the übermensch.  Personally, I think the idea of progress is garbage, but the idea of quality is not.  Progress is to move along a predetermined path, to forever get “better.”  To strive for quality isn’t to follow a predetermined path.  I do not believe we can progress forever toward an überzivilisation populated by übermenschen, the visions of which have already been foretold, the existence of which we are simply waiting for.  I do believe we can, as capable beings, always strive toward becoming people of higher quality, people who can build societies that are also of higher quality.  When asked who is to determine what is quality and what is not (which is a valid query), we can usually, with truthfulness, say that each culture will determine that for itself; however, all of us know, instinctively, what is of quality and what is not.  Robert Pirsig wrote a whole book about this, and determined, I think rightfully, that everything stems from Quality (the capital-Q being intentional).

The biggest things I’ve learned from the material above, and much of it I haven’t quoted, are to (1) accept life with its ups and downs, but to also (2) question the status quo, to smash what does not work and replace it with something that does.  We have to realize that most things are not up to us, and that we have very limited control over a great many aspects of our lives.  And this should not worry us.  I, like every other living thing, am at the mercy of the universe.  It is not up to me to decide whether I will live or die; it is up to the universe.  I do have some limited control over how I will live my life, but I cannot and will not escape this world and the rules that govern it.  The quotes I’ve provided so far reflect these conclusions quite well.  However, where they talk about remaking society, I don’t feel they go far enough.

I think one of the things that has been wrongly concluded, or rather missed, is that it is in the nature of civilization to produce the ill effects that these folks have (rightly) identified, not merely what happens in a “dying,” “sick,” “valueless,” or “lost” society. It’s built into the very fabric of those societies, and so as people who want to always identify the true roots of the problems human societies face, I find it simply shocking that these organizations have trouble accepting the premise: that it’s civilization that will forever produce these issues, no matter what the values of the individual cultures are. It is a problem of values, but a problem that occurs at a point more important to the structural integrity of all civilized societies—much more vital to stability than how we interact with and how we feel toward one another, but the very foundation.

Civilization has not been questioned.  “Modern society” has been.  “Industrial civilization” has been.  Pluralism has been, liberalism has been, democracy has been, globalization has been, values have been, politicians have been, and so on.  Civilization has been accepted as a given—it is, after all, the way Indo-Europeans have been living for perhaps as long as they’ve been Indo-Europeans.  It’s unquestionable.

City Slicker

This is not an idea of mine, but I can’t remember whom I’m stealing it from.  The idea is this: Of all societies throughout history, we only call the complex, vast, “great” ones civilizations.  Everything else is “primitive” and their collective settlements are only called societies. Peter Farb in Man’s Rise to Civilization made this distinction quite clear—hell! look at the title!  This, from the table of contents, will illustrate my point:

Part One: The Evolution of Complexity

  • I. A Laboratory For Modern Man

The Band

  • II. Great Basin Shosone: Cultural Impoverishment
  • III. Eskimo: Environment and Adaptation
  • IV. The Sub-Arctic: Living With Expediency
  • V. Southern California: The Potentialities of the Band

The Tribe

  • VI. Zuni: Unity Through Religion
  • VII. Iroquois: Primitive Democracy
  • VIII. Plains: Equestrian Revolution

The Chiefdom

  • IX. Northwest Coast: Status and Wealth
  • X. Natchez: People of the Sun

The State

  • XI. Aztec: Study in Total Power

It is only at the level of the state that we recognize what we call civilization. Of all of the native people in the book, the Aztec were the only ones who were civilized. It’s important also to notice that all of the societies we call civilizations, all except the current global society, have collapsed.  The more I’ve thought about it, the harder I find it to believe civilization can be sustained at all.  In fact I can’t believe it at all.  I just can’t.  I wasn’t originally open to the idea our society’s own organizing principle, the principle we’ve been organized by for longer than anyone can remember, could be unsustainable.  But here it is: Civilization, as a form of social organization, can’t be sustained.  There.  I said it.

But why not?

I think knowing what is in the nature of civilizations is more important than defining, in exact terms, what makes a society civilized, but we need to start somewhere.  From Derrick Jensen:

Webster’s calls civilization “a high stage of social and cultural development.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a developed or advanced state of human society.” All the other dictionaries I checked were similarly laudatory. These definitions, no matter how broadly shared, helped me not in the slightest. They seemed to me hopelessly sloppy. After reading them, I still had no idea what the hell a civilization is: define high, developed, or advanced, please. The definitions, it struck me, are also extremely self-serving: can you imagine writers of dictionaries willingly classifying themselves as members of “a low, undeveloped, or backward state of human society”?

[…]

I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts—that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.8

He also said in an interview, more plainly, that his civilization definition is “defensible both linguistically and historically.”  I agree, and I think his definition is rock-solid.  However, for the sake of neutrality, we’ll eliminate the word growth from his definition; we know that growth cannot be sustained, and the object here is not to state right off the bat that civilization is unsustainable, but to explore the idea and find out how and why it isn’t sustainable.  Rephrased, a working definition is this: Civilization is a way of life characterized by the existence of and population of cities.

His definition of city, even though I agree with it, is less rock-solid.  It is defensible historically, but not necessarily linguistically.  If we can agree on some other things then this is irrelevant, but we still need a definition of some sort.  However, dictionary definitions are similarly vague to those cited for civilization; the most help I’ve found is this:

city
c.1225, from O.Fr. cite, in medieval usage a cathedral town, but orig. meaning any settlement, regardless of size (distinction from town is 14c., though in Eng. it always seems to have ranked above borough), from earlier citet, from L. civitatem (nom. civitas) orig. “citizenship, community of citizens,” from civis “townsman,” from PIE base *kei- “to lie, homestead.” The L. word for “city” was urbs, but a resident was civis. Civitas seems to have replaced urbs as Rome (the ultimate urbs) lost its prestige. City hall first recorded 1675; city slicker first recorded 1924 (see slick); both Amer.Eng. Inner city first attested 1968.9

From this I can gather that, while originally city was used for all settlements, it has for the past 600 years been distinguished from towns, villages, etc.  I don’t know of a line we could draw, on one side of which we would have a town and the other a city, but since our knowledge of anthropology has all come in these 600 years, in fact most of it from the last 100, I think we can make this distinction: if we wouldn’t call a settlement of low population density a city today, it shouldn’t be considered a city at all.  Greek city-states were cities; Native American villages were not.

So, for the sake of neutrality, we’re ignoring the inherent growth of cities, and we’re only saying cities are settlements of large-enough populations (and densities).  Going on…

Something important to know about civilizations is that they are, as I read recently, unequivocally based on agriculture. This might seem like it has little to do with our definition that revolves around the city, but it is an important fact nonetheless: every civilization has been based on agriculture.  No civilization has been fueled and built by foragers or foragers who also hunted.  There have simply been none.  Foragers and hunters simply did not (and do not) live in highly populated settlements, and since they didn’t (and don’t), they didn’t (and don’t) build civilizations.  But this makes sense. A sizable population living at a high density simply could not live in one place for very long if they were foragers because they would quickly denude the land of the food they depend on and, before long, would have to move on. (Therefore Derrick’s definition of city is actually rather accurate, because the food needs to come from somewhere, and if it’s not coming from the city itself, it needs to come from without.) What this means is that agriculture is a foundational aspect of civilization, and what this means is that every civilization creates and depends on a surplus of food.

A surplus of food means the population will grow.

Civilization has and always will be built around cities populated by people fed on crops.  These cities will grow, because their populations will grow due to a surplus of food, meaning a civilization will grow. Since its growth cannot be sustained, it will collapse. It may recover from that collapse (or series of collapses), or it may not; there are examples of civilizations that have done both throughout history. So while we didn’t need to define civilization as a way of life dependent on growth, we can see that it is in the nature of civilization to grow—that is, even though we don’t have to define it that way, that’s what we have.

I’ll backtrack just a little bit here. Just a few moments ago I pointed out that cities are not self-supporting ecosystems by their very nature. A city could not support foragers, and cities do not contain farms, so farms must be outside of the city—that is, a city must be supported from the outside. A city thus does something tricky: it hides its entire support system and gives the city-dweller the illusion of being kept alive by nothing. When food comes from a grocery store it’s easy to imagine the food just appearing there, but of course it didn’t.  (I’ve actually been told about a grandmother who, growing up in New York City, didn’t know vegetables came from the ground.)

One will often see people claiming various things about how cities aren’t bad, but actually good.  Some will say that the carbon footprint of a city-dweller is lower than that of someone in a rural area—but I’m not going to argue about whether or not that is true. Someone recently said to me that it’s better for people of a growing population to move into cities, because if they didn’t they’d cover the whole planet—and that’d be bad! But again, here we have an illusion.

If you were to stand upon the top of a mountain and look out over the vast expanses below, what would you see? Imagine these two situations: In a rural world you would see more and more houses spaced out in a not-so-dense fashion, some of them attached to farms, some with gardens of their own, but no large population centers. In the world of cities you would see very large places with a high concentration of people dotted across the land, more spaced out than the rural houses, and with a lot of empty-looking space between. But look closer: in the “empty” space between cities you’ll find many farms, and as the cities grow, the farms around and between them will grow and multiply, as you might expect. The empty space will be gobbled up, quite literally.

There was an article last year that pointed this out quite well:

Looking then for a way around the problem of growing human numbers, most environmentalists now suggest a reduction in individual consumption is all we need to solve our ecological problems.

Are they right? The work of the Global Footprint Network (GFN), home of the “ecological footprint,” points to the answer. Measuring consumption as the use of biologically productive land and sea, their data shows a global maximum sustainable footprint, at today’s population, of just under 1.8 global hectares (gha) per person. Currently, by drawing down nonrenewable resources, we’re a bit over 2.2gha, overshooting Earth’s limits by about 25%.

What if everyone took the emailer’s advice and converged on Mexico’s level of per capita consumption? Resource use would plummet in developed countries while rising in many of the poorest. (Surely we could not deprive the latter of the chance to raise their standards of living?) But it wouldn’t get us to 1.8gha. At 2.6gha, Mexico’s footprint is 32% too high. A drop to the level of Botswana or Uzbekistan would put us in the right range.

But that’s not low enough. We’d next have to compensate for UN projections of 40% more humans by the middle of the century. That would mean shrinking the global footprint to under 1.3gha, roughly the level of Guatemala or Nigeria.10

What’s pointed out here is that each person still requires a similar amount of land to support him- or herself.  While a farmer or other rural resident might actually have 2.2 hectares, and the city-dweller only occupies an apartment of a few hundred square feet, they still require the same amount of land to live.  A more likely situation is this: a farmer owns many times the average land required, let’s say ten times (giving him 22 hectares, but of course in real life he might have 100 times 2.2 or more), but all of that land doesn’t go toward feeding himself; it is divided up and divvied among many.  His 22 hectares support many city dwellers, most who imagine they only require a few hundred square feet, and also himself and his family.

~

Somewhere around here an important question reveals itself: Do we have to dismantle civilization?

The simple answer is yes; if we do not wish to experience a collapse never witnessed before by any human society we must dismantle civilization because its nature requires growth, and growth cannot be sustained.  The more complex answer is maybe; if we could discover (or remember, rather) a form of agriculture that does not result in perpetual growth and that does not kill the land faster than it heals itself then this lifestyle might continue.  But would it still be civilization, or something else?  I think it would be something else.  I think we do need to dismantle civilization.

A poster on the Ran Prieur message boards posted this just a few days ago:

Please understand that agriculture of any kind is, as far as I’m concerned, a stop-gap measure as we transition away from industrial civilization. I remain convinced that hunting and gathering is the only truly sustainable way for humans to feed themselves. Unfortunately it’s not an option that is open to us in the near term.11

I almost agree with this.  He’s right in that the baseline, natural (ugh!) carrying capacity is determined by what Earth grows on its own.  I do think, however, that a higher population could exist if it weren’t for perpetual growth.

I’d love to believe that humans everywhere could exist living a lifestyle of affluence comparable to that of humans maybe 75 or 100 years ago (when there were roughly two billion and one-and-a-half billion people, respectively), and failing that, 200 years ago (when there were not even a billion people) or so.  But I can’t accept that as a realistic situation as long as civilization is in the picture, because the nature of civilization is to always have a surplus of food, which will always produce growth.  Maybe our scientific minds can figure out how much food can be produced without destroying more land annually, and we could keep the food supply at that number, which would of course keep the population stable.  The key is discovering how much food can be produced without killing the landbase.  Basically, if the land can heal itself faster than agriculture can kill it, then the population that produces that food can be supported.  But the key is: that food supply and that population cannot grow—both must remain static, or else the culture will cross the tipping-point and be unsustainable.

It might be possible.  I don’t know.  As I’ve been saying for years now, there are thousands of years worth of damage to the collective human psyche.  Healing that damage is a tremendous task, but I won’t say it can’t be done.

Since this was a post highly concerned with nihilism, a concept most people would consider negative, I have left all “hopeful” notions (although I can barely even call them that) for another follow-up post, which I will do soon. I’ve covered what is wrong, so I can now go into what will (hopefully) go right.  The nihilist in me doesn’t really care whether we figure it out or not: if we can’t do it, Earth will do it for us.  I’d like for people to figure it out and to avoid catastrophe, but it’s all going to work itself out somehow, no matter what.

Notes and Links

  1. Radical Traditionalism and Nihilism at anus.com
  2. Interview: Editor and Columnist Alex Birch of Corrupt.org at corrupt.org
  3. Nihilism at anus.com
  4. Letters, Letters… at anus.com
  5. CORRUPT FAQ v1.0 at corrupt.org
  6. Postmorality at anus.com
  7. CORRUPT VISION at corrupt.org
  8. Civilization at endgamethebook.org
    Also, check out this video of Derrick talking about the same thing.
  9. City Definition at dictionary.reference.com
  10. Return of the population timebomb at guardian.co.uk
    In this article John cites the Global Footprint Network, but since it is harder to find a quote to illustrate the point there, I’ve just used his.
  11. Combustion and Farming at dropout50394.yuku.com
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. jakemoran permalink
    September 28, 2009 7:07 pm

    This is a great post. Very thorough in its ideas, and very holistic in its scope of the topic. I don’t really have much to add or say at the moment.

  2. September 29, 2009 2:36 pm

    I made a visit to Corrupt today and figured I could add something.

    I came across the review for Gilgamesh, and it made me think of something Derrick Jensen said in Strangely Like War, and something he also says in many interviews and talks.

    It’s often said that the ability to recognize patterns is one of the signs of intelligence. So, I’m going to list a pattern here, and let’s see if we can recognize it in less than five or six thousand years. When you think of the plains and hillsides of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of normally cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? That’s how they were.

    The first written myth of this culture is Gilgamesh going in and deforesting those hills to make cities. When you think of the Arabian peninsula, is the first thing that you think of oak forest? That’s what it used to be. Let’s move a little bit west, and you get the cedars of Lebanon. They still have one on their flag.

    Plato was commenting on how deforestation was destroying the springs and rivers in Greece. And I’m sure that those in power said, Well, we need to study it a little bit longer first, to make sure there’s a connection. Greece was heavily forested, Italy was heavily forested, North Africa was heavily forested.

    Source: http://www.davidsheen.com/firstearth/interviews/jensen.htm (This is a transcript, though it doesn’t seem to be exact, of the interview from the “This Means War” link I have on the sidebar. He says this in the fourth part.)

    Now, I haven’t read Gilgamesh since high school, and even then I think we read an abridged version in my mythology class, so I can’t really stick in my own thoughts here. But the idea is a good one: that part of the world used to be heavily forested, and now it is desert. But since civilization (city-building) is so fundamental to human society anymore, it’s doesn’t even get a tiny bit of thought from someone who is otherwise supposed to be a proponent of “extreme ecology,” as it’s put in one of the quotes I used.

    But this is what Alex from Corrupt wrote:

    The existential conclusion echoes with Sumerian spiritual stoicism: don’t worry about death, make sure you become a decent citizen, and protect your culture and civilization at all costs.

    Alex is not a dumb person, so I almost find it even more disappointing to think that he himself knows what is in the nature of civilization but will still fight to defend it.

    I didn’t mention in this post anything about the ANUS/Corrupt suggestions for population control, although I kind of meant to get to it. Basically, though, I find it a little disturbing that they would find it preferable to simply dominate their subjects and keep the population under control by force rather than simply choose a way of life that does not result in perpetual growth. If you choose civilization what you’ll get is a society that will grow, no matter what. Instead of dominating your people, it would make sense (to me) to choose another way of life so you don’t need to.

    I guess I’m just a lot less open to the idea of forced sterilizations than I used to be, since I’ve come to the conclusion that they don’t have to be necessary if we just choose another way.

    • thequantumbuddha permalink
      October 5, 2009 10:01 pm

      Imagine if the power of the media was used to encourage resonsibility and educate us in a new way to live…

      • October 5, 2009 11:32 pm

        I know! It seems like that would make everything so much easier! Finally all of this much-vaunted “modern technology” could do some good!

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