Chapter One – Shake Yourself from Sleep
I can’t remember anything up to the age of three. Some people say they can, but I’m not so sure – it’s surprising how easy something said about you or a photograph in an album can become embedded as a “memory”. The first real memory I have, rather than one replicated by Kodak, was of a rainstorm.
Between the ages of two and eighteen I lived in the English seaside town of Margate. In the first ten years or so of our time there – an exquisitely blissful time of life when worrying was something other people did – we ran first a guest house, and then a slightly more grandly titled “hotel”. The guest house was located in one of the many roads that run perpendicular to the sea-front road, leading inland towards the main shopping street; one of hundreds of small and medium-sized accommodations that served the once teeming masses of East Kent holidaymakers.
Behind our modest establishment was a concrete yard in which stood a small caravan. There may have been more to it than that, but details often get forgotten when you are three. The occasion is lost to me, but some kind of late-night party was taking place and I had been moved for the sake of a good night’s sleep, along with my older sister, into the aforementioned caravan. Sleep didn’t pass over me like the shadow of a cloud crossing the evening sun; this night the rain was pouring down, drumming a mighty tattoo upon the metallic roof. Things start to become unclear, but at some point I must have complained of a headache, for which I was administered a paracetamol tablet – maybe just a half. Shortly after, sleep took me and the memory faded.
It’s very rare that I get headaches, and usually nothing a night’s sleep can’t resolve (with a slight sense of irony); nevertheless, when one does start really punching its way through my anterior cortex, paracetamol is my analgesic of choice. I can’t honestly say that the night in the rainy caravan is the reason for this, but someone in the world of advertising can probably give me an opening here. Let’s just say the way we perceive the world, and subsequently behave in it is dominated by the messages we receive in our developmental years:
It is relatively easy for producers and retailers to begin a relationship with children as future consumers…One of the basic behaviours parents teach children is to go into the marketplace and satisfy their needs through certain products and brands. In effect, children learn to find need-satisfying objects and stick with them.1
Make of that what you will, and I’m sure you already have your own opinions on the power of advertising, but for anyone who sees commercials as a fairly harmless enterprise – a sort of wallpaper behind the furniture of television programmes – never forget that advertising exists to make people want things they otherwise would not have bought. To put it another way: advertising creates need out of nothing.
There is, of course, a corollary of global proportions to the dancing pixels on the television screen; the glowing billboards that flit-flit-flit past as you ride the escalator; the glossy sheets that fall from the pages of the newspaper and through your letter box: a corollary of death that comes to the victim as easily as passing a new iPhone through the bright red beams of a barcode reader. Perhaps a little twinge of anguish as your bank balance clicks downwards and into barcode scanner red. Maybe even the tiny recognition that the person who assembled your purchase lies sprawled in the suicide net that the factory across the world installed to prevent further public embarrassment.
How nice of them to save us from too much guilt.
By the time you read this, the iPhone might seem as quaint as the Walkman, the ZX Spectrum or the Raleigh Grifter: at least if you grew up in the 1970s in the same kind of environment as I did. Take a couple of moments to replace these with your favourite items from youth; then disassociate yourself from them so they just became objects from someone else’s past…it’s difficult, isn’t it? The memories ooze through: making up compilation tapes to listen to on the bus; writing adventure games in Basic that would never be completed; pulling half-hearted wheelies along the seafront, taking care not to startle too many old ladies. The bitter white tablet that eased my headache, probably through the warm blanket of placebo, takes its place on that treadmill that is your civilized life.
I had a Walkman, a ZX Spectrum, a Raleigh Grifter, because that’s what people had at the time – because that’s what was advertised and gradually, through a process of mental osmosis, became a necessary cultural artefact. But I never had a DAT player, a Commodore 64 or a Muddy Fox BMX. For me, those things hold memories but little meaning.
Alliance to a particular item is a personal thing; in commerce it drives rivalries between companies and increases sales, breeding brand loyalty which is the lodestone of consumer success. Once you have brand loyalty – and what a powerful cultural grip that is – then you have the Consumer by the balls (metaphorical or otherwise), and thus iPod becomes iPhone becomes iPad becomes iLife.
And, yes, iLife does exist.
Substitute toys and gadgets with clothing, home furnishings, places to live, movies to see, food to eat, jobs to do, parties to vote for, lifestyles to embrace…the whole construct of civilized life is a series of discrete packages that may change their contents from time to time, but as entities are so fundamental to modern culture that without them we feel as if we may as well not exist. From the first blip on the TV screen we experience as babies we have been mentally programmed: the only escapes we have in the civilized world are dreamless sleep…and death.
There are times in your life when you have to risk offending someone. Where I live now there is a fairly high proportion of church-goers as compared to the town we moved away from in 2010. Religiously it doesn’t compare with anything like a typical American southern states town, and is positively heathen if viewed alongside Tehran, Manila or Salt Lake City (although I can’t see the occupants of these three places ever coming to an agreement over what “heathen” means), but nonetheless the question of religion is discretely shooed to the back of the room as soon as it is raised, because I don’t actually have any. Pushed as to whether I would be attending a church service for instance, I may say, “No, I’m not religious at all”, and perhaps sense a thin veil falling between the questioner and myself. That veil becomes more akin to a fortified security fence with barbed wire and snipers in a place where religion is…well, the religion.
I can steer clear of Tehran, Manila and Salt Lake City pretty easily, but mention you aren’t a Consumer or a Voter or a Citizen just about anywhere in the industrialised world, and the snipers will be quietly releasing the safety catches. And so, perhaps with the opening salvo of this book, and certainly in the next few sections, most people reading this will not exactly be sympathetic to what I have to say.
The gunman’s call for draconian measures to be implemented to lower global population and destroy civilization echoes the eco-fascist propaganda of people like author and environmentalist Keith Farnish, who in a recent book called for acts of sabotage and environmental terrorism in blowing up dams and demolishing cities in order to return the planet to the agrarian age.
“The only way to prevent global ecological collapse and thus ensure the survival of humanity is to rid the world of Industrial Civilization,” writes Farnish in the book, adding that “people will die in huge numbers when civilization collapses”. Farnish’s call for violence, “razing cities to the ground, blowing up dams” provides a deadly blueprint for nutcases like Lee to follow.
Farnish explains his desire to see rampant population reduction in the name of saving the planet, with rhetoric chillingly similar to that contained in Lee’s online screed.2
That’s quite a dramatic interpretation of what I actually wrote, but the message here is clear: “Don’t mess with our way of life.” Now that’s odd because the writer, Paul Joseph Watson, would be among the first to complain about anything that suppresses human liberty – like corporations telling people what to eat and how to dress, perhaps – but as a 28 year old, living in a large English city, brought up in an era when greed was most definitely good, Watson’s diatribe mirrors the feelings of virtually every politician, every corporate executive, and close to every ordinary human being who has felt the irresistible pull of consumerism in their formative years. People don’t like to hear that almost everything they have ever believed in is wrong, and will do everything in their power to retain those beliefs.
Which makes me a heretic, at best.
But I suspect you have got this far because a tiny part of you does think there is more to making the world a good place to live in than buying the right brand of shoes. You might think politicians don’t have our best interests at heart when they say that businesses need the freedom to grow; or Bill Gates is perhaps not promoting genetically modified food because he can’t stand to see people go hungry; or that Al Gore is not entirely devoted to the idea of reducing greenhouse gases to the kind of levels that would actually stabilise the climate.
It doesn’t take much of an effort to be a cynic; but to really question everything you may have previously held as true is, for most civilized people, a step too far. It challenges your loyalties. It denies your personal experiences. It makes a mockery of who you think you are.
It undermines you.
I apologise for the inconvenience, but all I want to show you is the truth: and that is most definitely the last time Al Gore will be playing a part in this story.
Some time ago I wrote a book called Time’s Up! which still underpins everything I have subsequently written, including this book. There were three primary theses in Time’s Up! which, for the sake of continuity I will now summarise. If you need a more detailed explanation then you will need to read the book or its online equivalent3:
1) Because the ultimate purpose of all life forms, including human beings, is to continue their genetic line and all we can ever know or care about is from the point of view of a human being, What Matters is What Matters to Us.
2) In order to appreciate the level of threat that global environmental changes are posing to the continuation of humanity, and that it is the acts of a certain type of human being – Civilized Humans – that have brought about that threat, we have to Connect with ourselves, the people we depend upon, and the natural ecosystems that support our existence.
3) Myriad forces exist to protect Industrial Civilization – the ultimate killing machine – from human beings becoming Connected. These forces, which I have named the Tools of Disconnection have to be undermined in order to allow us to Connect and thus make possible the continuation of humanity.
There is an enormous amount of cultural suspension required to take all of that at face value. However, we have to start somewhere: in Time’s Up! the assumption was that the reader accept human emissions of greenhouse gases being the cause of accelerated climate change, alongside the many other environment impacts related to civilized human activity. That was a big enough ask; this is a veritable Leap of Faith for which I can make no apologies.
However, I perfectly understand an element of handholding is required to navigate the more treacherous of places and so I want to introduce a friend of mine to explain the situation we are in with a different voice.
Inherent in the paradigm of Industrial Civilization is the notion of separation. Humans, it is believed, are separate from the Earth community, from each other, and from their own bodies. Because they are “separate,” they are by definition in competition for resources and anything that brings pleasure or well being. From the separation assumption issues a distorted notion of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” in the form of social Darwinism. Few of us understand how firmly the separation assumption has become embedded in our psyches.
However, in a chaotic world of endings, unravelling, catastrophe, or protracted demise, relationship will be a pivotal issue. For this reason, the survivalist mentality which purports to “go it alone” with an “every man for himself” attitude, not only will not serve those who embrace it, but will profoundly put their physical survival at risk. For our well being, we will absolutely require connection with other human beings in times of chaos and crisis. Therefore, cultivating a broader perspective of relationship in advance of the coming chaos may be exceedingly useful in learning how to navigate relationship challenges in the future—challenges on which our survival may depend.
Not only will we be compelled to relate differently to humans, but to all beings in the non-human world as well. Only as we begin to read the survival manuals that trees, stars, insects and birds have written for us will our species be spared. The very “pests” that we resent as unhygienic or annoying may, in fact, save our lives. One year ago, the honey bees used to circle around me on warm days when I ate my lunch outside under the trees, sitting on the grass. Today, I sit under the same trees on the same grass, but the honey bees are gone. No one seems to be able to tell us why. Maybe it’s time to ask the bees to tell us why.
If we recall our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we realise that they held a deeply intimate relationship with nature; in fact, their lives depended on that relationship. Our indigenous ancestors have revealed unequivocally that they could not survive without a deeply personal connection with nature. The Lakota gave us the beautiful expression Mitakuye Oyasin or “all my relations” – meaning that we are all related to every member of the non-human as well as human world. Native peoples often speak of “standing people” (trees), “fish people”, or “stone people”; as if trees, fish and rocks are persons to be communed with, not objects to be possessed.
Today, we live in civilised societies that dominate nature, and we have been taught that we need not bother communing with it. But, no matter how estranged we may feel from nature, something in our ancient memory recalls our intimacy with it. Therefore everything we need to restore our connection with nature is already available to us.4
A state of Connection is necessary to survive planet Earth. This state is not some discrete entity that can be sketched out on a mind map or project plan – though I can well imagine some people in the Sierra Club taking on “Project Connection” with gusto, and proceeding to brainstorm all the great ways we can be connected to nature – it defies such crude pigeon-holing; occupying instead that part of our natural selves the civilized world refuses to acknowledge: the continuum. I have described this continuum in various ways in the past, but a simple phrase keeps coming back to me which has found its niche in popular song for at least the last four decades:
“It all comes round again.”
Essentially, what you do will eventually come back to you. If what you do is inherently destructive then however much you try and ignore it, cover it up, distract from it or even pretend it is a good thing, that destruction will come back at, if not you personally, someone, somewhere down the line. A Connected state allows us to see – no that is too crude – it allows us to know that continuum. It may have taken climate scientists many decades to establish the true link between emissions and climate change, but it doesn’t take a host of scientists to tell you that introducing a technological infrastructure to a desert, extracting brown tarry emulsion from deep below that desert, transporting it to a place several time zones away, exposing it to high temperatures in vast cylinders and extracting the individual components of that formerly homogenous mass in order for them to be used in everything from aircraft, lorries and ships , to plastics and fabrics, to inks and road surfaces – all of that is bound to have a destructive impact in the mind of the connected individual.
You don’t need to analyse it; it’s obvious.5
It is no coincidence that Connection itself is a continuum, spanning the arc across which clings the individual; the community or clan; the wider tribal entity (but, significantly, not a single civilization); the human Diaspora; the entire conscious web that links all sentient organisms together; and again the individual that seems to hold this collective awareness somewhere inside.
Other connections exist which may seem trivial in comparison, but are no less important in the scope of humanity’s great adventure. While the corporate world is hell-bent on homogenising every aspect of human culture and simultaneously moulding the symbols of humanity into nothing but swooshes, arches, four note jingles and spotlit edifices; that nagging part of our mind keeps asking “Who am I?” For a victim of Industrial Civilization, such a question is easily answered if you wear Nike, eat at McDonalds, use Intel processors and watch Fox News. You are what you wear, eat, use and watch: how elegantly the phalanx of consumer symbols slots into the modern psyche. Then again, can such a significant and deeply personal question really be answered by a machine?
Writing on the cusp of the nineteenth century in the Scottish border county of Selkirkshire, Sir Walter Scott seems to suggest we are nothing without a connection to place:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!6
We need a homeland, a native land, a place that is special to us. Whether its meaning lies in the people we share it with; the memories it holds for us; the way it feeds, waters and protects us, there is – somewhere – a place we are connected to. A connection we call “Home”. No artefacts of the consumer lifestyle are an adequate substitute for such a vital, personal connection.
Whether it is ecological, cultural, spiritual, or something indefinable that tugs at the soul; at whatever scale of humanity we consider, Connection is always present; and when something is so ubiquitous7, but without any apparent disruptive force creating these conditions then it must be necessary for our continued existence.
So, if Connection is necessary to our existence, how then can we bring ourselves to sacrifice a pristine forest for a shopping mall?
Recently, while sailing north on the Patuxent River — her banks dark with vegetation where just a few months there were only naked boughs — I saw a tall plume of black smoke rising over the forest to the east against an otherwise clear blue sky. As soon as I could gain moorings and secure my boat, I drove to find the source of this disturbing sight.
In barely five miles, I came upon a scene of mechanized destruction which drew an involuntary cry of disappointment from me. A parcel of once-rolling forest was being destroyed.
The fires I witnessed from the Patuxent were still pluming skyward later in the day, as heavy grading equipment began to level the topography, taking away nature’s landscape, sculpted over the last hundreds of thousands of years to turn it into an anchor supermarket with eight accessory stores totaling 100,000 square feet—plus acres of impervious tarmac paving.8
Civilization encourages us to shut the door; shut the windows; shut the blinds; shut our minds from the reality of the world…the connected world is still going on out there, but we would rather let the caustic rain of civilization wash it away and supplant it with “connections” that have been manufactured to keep us in our place.
In our disconnected lives we are made to feel safe, even though we are on the edge of catastrophe; we are made to enjoy what we do, even though we have forgotten what joy feels like; we are made to experience self-worth, even though we have become worthless; we are made to feel in control, even though we have no control at all…the system has us where it wants us. And now it can use all of us like the metaphorical batteries and cogs that signify our labour and our spending, and our naïve compliance in which we live our synthetic lives, from the plastic toys we grasp as babies to the flickering, energy-sapping screens that fix our attention on the advertisers’ world; from the blacktop roads we populate in countless streams of metal caskets with wheels on the way to and from our designated places of valued employment, to the offices and factories and supermarkets and call centres we spend a third of our lives operating in order to keep the machine spinning; in order that we can be given currency with which we, in our docility, reinsert into the system so it can keep growing, and taking, and killing everything it is able to reach.
And when we feel weary, we take a packaged, predetermined vacation. And when we feel hungry, we eat a packaged, predetermined meal. And when we feel bored, we go to a packaged, predetermined slice of entertainment. And when we are of no more use to the system, we are retired…and only then do we, in the moments of reflection we never had time for during our urgent “productive” years, think about what we could have been had the system not taken us at such an early age. We have become, in effect, an entirely new sub-species – for although our genetic DNA is unchanged from pre-industrial times, our cultural DNA is far removed from that of any other group, tribe or society that ever walked the Earth prior to the emergence of this rapacious version of a human being. Homo sapiens sapiens is a connected species. Homo sapiens civilis has had the connections ripped away from it.
With such a massive upheaval in the way humanity behaves and, consequently, the way we (refuse to) interact with the rest of life, that cultural DNA takes on a significance far beyond, say, finding a new way to extract food from forest plant matter or being fleet of foot across the grasslands of Africa. Civilization’s cultural imbalance with the rest of life has created – at least in our heads – something that is entirely separate from the Pantheon of living things. Perhaps subspecies was far too modest; after all we were proud enough to add a second sapiens to our title, simply because we wanted to feel special. And, certainly, when the system wants us to feel special, it does so. But when it wants to grind our faces into the concrete, take us lower than our sane minds can tolerate, and then benevolently picks us up again with an offering from the shelves of the Great Shopping Mall of Civilization, it will choose to do that. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler just to hug a tree?
Fuck the trees.
How many channels have they got? How many gigabytes can they store? How much money can you make from them?
That’s more like it. You see, it was easy to find common ground between the tree and the civilized mindset: all we had to do was think about money, and everything else slotted neatly into place. How much money can civilization make from a tree? It depends how many it cuts down – and it’s not just the money from the wood, for that is a pittance compared to the money it could make from an absence of trees. The teeth of the chain cuts into the arboreal flesh one last time, leaving a glorious space for…what do you want? A new parking lot; an out of town retail park; a blockade of oil palms; a herd of grazing cattle; thousands of acres of soybeans; an open cast coal pit; a toxic sludge lake; a city or two…
1 James U. McNeal, “The Kids Market: Myths & Realities”, Paramount, 1999.
2 Paul Joseph Watson, “Eugenicist Gunman Exposes Dark Side of the Environmentalist Cult”, Prison Planet website (http://www.prisonplanet.com: accessed October 2010)
3 Keith Farnish, “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, Green Books, 2009. Also published as “A Matter of Scale” at http://www.amatterofscale.com.
4 Some of this text is derived from Carolyn Baker, “Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse”, 2009, iUniverse, and “Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition”, draft manuscript.
5 As someone who is cogniscent of scientific method, and a critic of anyone who tries to make financial capital from that for which there is no empirical evidence, I understand this sounds hypocritical; but I am also aware that our capacity to know something in the absence of detailed analysis is perhaps the root of our development of scientific understanding. Civilization has just formalised what humans have been doing since the origins of our species. And I also subscribe fully to evolutionary theory, in case you were wondering.
6 Sir Walter Scott, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel: A Poem”, Longman & Co, 1805.
7 Economic growth is ubiquitous in civilization: we will come to that later.
8 Dr Kent Mountford, “Price of wholesale destruction of woods for shopping mall is no bargain”, Chesapeake Bay Journal, September 2006.
(Reference information is also available by hovering over the citation numbers in the text).
Version 1.01, published 7 September, 2011