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    Seven Lies About Civilization

    by Ran Prieur

    Monday, November 24, 2003

    1. Progress. The lie about "progress" is not just that it is good, or inevitable, but that it exists, that we have ever experienced such a thing as straight-line, single-direction, open-ended, positive-valued change. We might think we have, because "progress" is the central lie of our culture and there are illusions and fantasies of it everywhere:

    There's the schooling system, where we go from "lower" to "higher" grades -- but this rising is not real, just a story they tell, and the change is just to make us fit better in the dominant system, as we trade experience for rigid stories, intuition for intellect, diversity for uniformity, independence for obedience, and spontaneity for predictability. Then there's the wage labor system, where we're supposed to go from "lower" to "higher" positions, but few of us do, and anyway "higher" just means the dominant system has a tighter grip on our attention, our values, our souls. Then there's the history of technology, where the changes are declared "better" when their effects are to increase our forceful transformative power over the world while also increasing our emotional distance, or to make us more dependent on specialists, or to surround humans more and more with things humans have created, a process that Jerry Mander has identified as psychic inbreeding. The deepest place yet in our inbreeding is the world of computer games, games which almost without exception are built on the myth of progress, training us to self-administer dopamine for visions of ever increasing power, and then letting us off with a "win" instead of showing us how this kind of story really ends.

    In reality, nothing gets absolutely "better" but just changes its relationships, and a change in relationships that trades awareness and collaboration for disconnection and domination is not irreversible but unsustainable, not open-ended but self-limiting, not positive but destructive.

    2. Evolution. There is no disputing the fossil record, in which life on Earth has changed many times. The lie is to project the myth of "progress" onto these changes, to declare that they go in a simple straight line, in one direction, and always getting "better."

    This is a circular argument, where our collective insanity slaps a mask of itself on the biological world to justify itself.
    In reality biological changes are unlike the lie of "progress" -- they go in all kinds of directions, with populations falling and rising, organisms getting bigger and smaller, and moving from water to land to water. And nothing gets "better" except that species get better adapted to their environments, and in the absence of catastrophes the totality of life gets more diverse and complex.

    But in both these ways, civilized humans have done the opposite! We do not adapt to the wider world but twist it to fit ourselves, and even twist ourselves to fit our narrow cultural fantasies. And we do not increase but decrease the diversity and complexity of the whole, by driving species to extinction and exterminating or assimilating human societies into a uniform global monoculture. So whatever you call the biological history of the Earth, civilization is not an extension of it but a denial of it, a catastrophe.

    3. Everything is natural. Happily most people recognize this as a silly pseudo-philosophical distraction, but I want to knock it down anyway. The argument rests on a semantic distortion, a redefinition of "natural" to include absolutely everything, because I say so. Civilization is natural because humans are animals, toxic waste is natural because it's derived from stuff that comes from the Earth, bla bla bla.

    Real people do not use the word "natural" in this way. Maybe it's "natural" if I take this club and bash your head in, but you would prefer that I didn't, so you define words like "murder" to express and defend this preference. In the same way, people define "natural" to express and defend their preference for living trees over plastic trees, meadows over parking lots, rivers of drinkable water over rivers of dioxin. This is what "natural" really means, and if we don't want to die of cancer and turn the Earth into a poisoned desert, we have a responsibility to linguistically separate the natural from the unnatural and choose the natural many times a day.

    If you want a tight definition, natural means in symbiosis with nature, and nature means the totality of symbiotic life on Earth, and symbiotic means related in ways that are mutually beneficial and beneficial to the whole, where wider benefit takes precedence. Defining "beneficial" pushes the limits of our impoverished language, but I'm going to say generating autonomous and diverse aliveness. And if you don't know what aliveness means, look harder.

    4. Technology is neutral. Of all the lies about civilization, this one is the most insidious, the most challenging to refute, the one that most cripples the understanding of people who should know better. It's such a huge lie that it's hard to get a grip on it, so self-referential that it's hard to get outside it. Getting outside it is not a matter of learning a simple argument but learning a whole different and more complex way of thinking.

    The lie has two forms that are usually blurred together. One says that technology as a whole is neutral, where "technology" may be covertly defined as modern industrial technology. The other form says that every particular technology is neutral. My strategy is to attack the second and make the first look silly by declaring that no particular technology is neutral, that every technique, technology, and tool has its own set of motives and relationships.

    First, I want to expose the lie's strange internal definition of "neutral," which is that a thing is "neutral" if you can tell a story about how it can do good and another story about how it can do bad. When do we ever use this definition in real life? Do we say a serial killer is neutral because in addition to raping and killing women he pays taxes and is sometimes nice to people? If you work in a factory by day to learn how to sabotage it by night, are you neutral to that factory because you both help and hurt it? If my nation sells weapons to two other nations that are at war, so they will destroy each other and my nation will come out on top, does that count as neutral? Of course not! But these are the same kinds of ridiculous arguments people use to declare technologies neutral: Television is neutral because it not only makes us passive consumers of a uniform culture subject to central control, but it can transmit useful information. Dams are neutral because while they submerge ecosystems and block fish runs, they also make electricity. Even atomic bombs are neutral if we can think of some cockamamie story about doing good with them.

    The next level of deception is to say that it's the "way we use" a technology that's important. For example, cars are neutral because/therefore you can use one to go from place to place, or to intentionally run someone over. But as Jacques Ellul pointed out, the latter is not a use -- it is a crime. Calling it a use tricks us into placing our evaluating perspective in an artificial space between the normal use of cars and a crime, instead of where it belongs -- right in the middle of the extreme biases in the normal use of cars.

    Even if we ignore the exploitation of "resources," the displacement or murder of indigenous people, and the release of toxins required to manufacture and fuel cars, even if we ignore the millions of collision deaths and the poison-leaking wrecks, and we just look at cars as consumer tools, we can still see troubling built-in effects:

    By moving us faster from place to place, cars insert distance into
    our physical environment, and the space in this distance will be largely filled with streets and parking lots to hold all the cars. Earth-killing pavement, urban sprawl, and strip malls are practically inherent in the technology of the automobile. Also, for complex reasons, speeds beyond a certain low threshold actually increase commuting time. Also, once this distance has been inserted, you need a car to do anything. To exaggerate a point made by Ivan Illich, if you live in Los Angeles you might as well have had your legs cut off.

    Take away the cars, and we don't try to walk 40 miles a day on the freeways -- we tear up the pavement and build our physical communities so that everything we need is in walking distance. We spend less time commuting, we free all the time and energy we were putting into cars, and we regain autonomy through being able to use our own legs.

    Also we have better relationships. Because cars move us past everything so fast, and because they enclose us, they insulate us from the reality around us, from other people and nature, and they enable us to replace thick close relationships with thin distant ones. Without them we relate directly and frequently to what's right in front of us; we know our neighbors and we know the land.

    I could make similar arguments about computers, television, electricity, even written language. But the point is not to simply reject whole categories of technology, but to learn to see the alliances and motives that are built into technologies themselves regardless of "use," and to practice including or rejecting them on the basis of this understanding.

    The customary definition of "use" is itself a trick of language that subtly limits what is negotiable. Notice that it includes only use by consumers and not use by engineers, who have covertly been given permission to use anything in any way. Is the automobile a technology, or a use of the internal combustion engine? Is internal combustion a technology or a use of fire? Some ancient societies used the technology of the wheel only in pottery-making. Let's do that! "No, no, the car is a technology, and the use is where I drive it. That's the only thing you're permitted to question."

    If you can keep the discussion going, sooner or later you will hear something like "Cars could be electric instead of gasoline-burning" or "We could use solar or wind power instead of nuclear." Then you can point out that they're choosing one technology over another for the same use, so they knew all along that technologies are not neutral.

    5. We can't go back. Like the above, this is purely a religious doctrine -- but this one is clearly refuted by the ruins of ancient civilizations all over the world from which people went "back," and by lucky or exceptional individuals all through history who have dropped out of the system and moved closer to nature. In one sense, however, it's true: exploitative societies have no reverse gear and can only escalate until they crash. To avoid thinking clearly about this, we can tell ourselves the next one:

    6. The all-or-nothing future. According to this story there are only two possibilities: continued industrial civilization, or the total end of the world. Continued civilization generally means continued use of machines to transform relationships into domination and self-absorption. For the technophiles this could mean mining other planets, or deeper virtual reality; for the liberals it might mean taking an idealized version of upper-middle class life in a wealthy country in the late 20th century, extending it to the whole world, and staying there indefinitely through mechanical central control. And supposing our civilization fails -- don't look! There's nothing there but horrible absolute oblivion which we can talk about only in terms of what we "must" do to avoid it. People express this with maddeningly vague pronouncements like "If we don't reduce greenhouse emissions by 50% in ten years, it will be too late." Too late for what?

    The obvious reality is that the suggested reforms are both politically impossible and insufficient, that our civilization is a runaway train that will not slow down until it jumps the tracks, and that the actual future will be deep within the region we're forbidden to look at. The extinction of 95% of species including humans is not some unthinkable horror but a specific possibility that we can think about with precision. A milder possibility is the Road Warrior scenario where a few humans survive on a half-dead Earth. Milder still would be a political decentralization and ecological recovery like the so-called "dark" age in Europe after the fall of Rome. My point is, we can influence this! Our dreams and actions can affect what kind of world we go to, but they cannot possibly maintain the world we're used to.

    There comes a time in a fire when you stop trying to save the whole building and switch to saving what you can. The purpose of the all-or-nothing lie is to block this mental shift, to keep all our attention channeled into either saving the world as we know it, or just giving up. If we see that radically different worlds are possible and some of them are really going to happen, if we start imagining and building vigorous competitors to industrial civilization, we will hurt the "economy" and especially hurt the feelings of people who have invested their egos in the dominant culture. Another way they protect their egos is with the next lie:

    7. Civilization happens once. This peculiar idea is similar to the above, but the blind spot it enforces is not to other-than-civilized systems, but to other civilizations. The pro-civ version says this is our one and only shot to colonize space or whatever, and the anti-civ version says that if we can knock down the present civilization, nothing like it will ever happen again. I don't know where people came up with such an idea, unless they know something I don't about the coming new-age transformation of human consciousness. The harsh lesson of history is that every particular civilization falls while civilization in general keeps chugging on.

    I define civilization in general as an alliance between dominator consciousness and exploitation-enabling techniques, creating a society that systematically takes more than it gives. Yes, the oil will run out, but civilizations were rising and falling for thousands of years without oil, and I see no reason they won't do so again. The general pattern can operate, if necessary, on nothing but the muscle power of slaves and domesticated animals. And when you add on all the metal and hardware that will be lying around, and the lingering habits from our age, and whatever technical knowledge is preserved, it sure looks like we're going to have civilizations around -- to play with or resist -- until we go extinct or change into something quite different.
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