Recently, I put forth the idea that it would be a good thing if this civilization, with all its captured energy, could metamorphose into a civilized social grouping, whatever it might be called. I once called it a “civilized civilization.” Permacivilization might be another term. This drew some, er, cat calls from my treasured readership. Perhaps an elaboration is in order.
Is there any chance for This Ugly Civilization to metamorphose into something largely positive? Let’s look at our options. (I won’t dwell on die-off since I think it’s inevitable; its extent will be up to Gaia, not me.)
Future A: business as usual; the long decline, a la Rome, into small warring principalities and neofeudalism; much culture lost but patron-supported cultural refugia maintained for the privileged, akin to monasteries of old
Future B: reform; Lester Brown’s Plan B and Transition Towns; a sustainable civilization premised on structural reforms and various green technologies
Future C: rapid collapse and eventual reconstitution of human societies at the level of late stone age; most if not all of our culture and technology lost (a la the Mayan civilization); far-flung villages and nomadic groups eking out a living via foraging and low-tech cultivation plus scavenging civilization’s detritus
Future D: metamorphosis into another, less complex kind of civilization where a great deal of our cultural and technical knowledge is preserved; a world of medium and small towns and thriving countryside; emphasis on local self-determination, broad cooperation, and community
Well then. Are there any other possibilities? For me, option A is not something I wish to further. Option B is, in my view, not doable, because it requires massive elite involvement in restructuring everything toward peace, cooperation, sharing and frugality; besides, current high-tech green technologies are not that green but are created by highly destructive industrial processes. The elites have shown no intention to cut off the branch they are sitting on; their imperial predecessors have always driven their chariot off the cliff rather than reform the system to their personal disadvantage. And I have seen many lesser attempts at reform be readily coopted or sidetracked by the system. Future C may well end up happening; history supports such natural progression in the event of an abrupt and severe societal collapse. A stone age future is not unattractive; my only problem with that possibility is the loss of the cultural knowledge humanity has accumulated and paid such a high price for.
Future C means no glass and glasses, no electricity, no modern dentistry, no acute care in hospitals, no books or computers, no history, no phones, no plastics, no velcro, no bicycles, no transportation faster than a horse, no steel pressure cookers, no high quality tools. Survivable, even deeply enjoyable, but far from optimal. My preferred future would preserve a great deal of current knowledge for the generations to come, so that perhaps another kind of knowledge and technology, a biophilic kind, can piggyback on what we know today, and rise from the ashes of our suffering world. And it would counter, through its otherness, its appealing alternative cultural vortex, the push towards neofeudalism already on its way.
This, then, is why I throw my lot with the metamorphosis crowd rather than the primitivist crowd. The primitivist version is always the ultimate default; I would prefer something more… broadly inspiring, complex and preservationist. Something that would help us avoid losing this cultural wealth, enabling us instead to use it for the good of us and those coming after.
Is such a metamorphosis possible? To answer the question, one must first consider how Mother Nature does metamorphosis. It is a partially understood process that I have outlined in graphic detail here. To sum up, the high-embodied-energy caterpillar goes into a decline while hidden clusters of “imaginal cells” begin to grow and connect, using the nutrients the caterpillar had amassed for its radical transformation. After a time out of sight, protected within a cocoon or a chrysalis, the moth or butterfly emerges: a creature more delightful in its utter unlikeness to its caterpillar predecessor one could hardly imagine.
Here is my thinking: first, metamorphosis is real. It is a natural process that enables the creation of something utterly different; something no reform can accomplish. Second, cultural metamorphosis has been observed. It has been seen in a troop of baboons, who metamorphosed from a brutal, bully male-run domination culture into a largely non-violent, collaborative, female-vigilant culture. It has been observed indirectly in the social setting of a remote island, Tikopia (this remoteness may have provided the necessary cocoon). And finally, isn’t this our best option? However small its chances, why would I want to throw my support behind anything less?!