The world we know is falling apart. It is being torn apart, in fact, by us modern humans and our improvidence. Reading the newspaper, watching the news, or simply walking through a town these days easily awakes this feeling us. Climate breakdown is devastating the planet, wildlife disappears at ever-increasing rates, and social polarization and the worldwide trend towards political authoritarianism sets the stage for civil unrest or even war.
The underlying problem and the most existential threat we face today is the annihilation of ecosystems through destruction and pollution. This massive anthropogenic disruption causes unprecedented global warming and a myriad of other accompanying problems, such as the Sixth Mass Extinction Event, the degradation of ecosystems and the concomitant food insecurities and social instability, and soaring inequality.
The situation is so dire that some scholars start concluding that it is too late, and that nothing can be done anyway. Climate breakdown, despite being ‘fought’, ‘battled’, and ‘combated’ by the public for decades, is raging on at breakneck speed and is now considered ‘out of control’ and ‘unstoppable’.
Renewables won’t save us, technology won’t save us, and it is fairly realistic that even our worst-case scenarios might be true and the Earth will turn into a hothouse. Despite all our recycling, reduced meat consumption, cycling, and showering, CO2 emissions continue to rise, more oil is being extracted and burned, more species go extinct, more forests are being razed, and more rivers polluted year after year.
We pass threshold after threshold, yet nothing happens to change our course towards extinction. Public mood slowly shifts towards desperate- and hopelessness.
To find a way out of the mess we’ve created, four questions are of utmost importance:
1. Who is responsible for this ecological crisis?
2. What does ‘living sustainable’ even mean?
3. What the hell do we do about all those problems?
4. And, more importantly, how do we do this?
In the following, I will attempt to answer those fundamental questions from my own perspective and knowledge, and draw up a rough draft of one (but not the one) possible solution, or at least a direction. I don’t consider myself an expert of any kind — I’m just a man who loves his natural habitat — and I am fully aware that my proposals are still sketchy and fragmentary — but I feel like time is running out fast. Our situation has no precedent in history, so we’ll just have to try what works, and how. If we have a vaguely defined goal (which is what I’m trying to outline in the following chapters), we can just start working towards that head over heels and figure out the exact methods in the process. If we just stick to a few basic principles, the range for failure is limited to a minimum. There is no time to lose.
I will deliberately refrain from talking about any political issues, because it should be evident by now that this is undeniably an ecological — not a political! — problem. It therefore needs ecological solutions, not political ones. Talk about political “solutions” is a waste of time, an unnecessary detour with limited possibilities for success. ‘The environment’ does not care about more petitions, protests, agreements, talks, promises, reports, meetings, campaigns, discussions, laws and regulations, about humans talking to humans about humans, men in suits in offices in cities, nor does it about who’s being called president or prime minister. Politics is too bureaucratic, too theoretic, too alienated from the real world, takes too long, is too corrupt, and too unreliable. There is too much opposition and too much self-interest.
We are on our own on this one, and no politicians will magically save the world for us.
Because I live in the tropics, I am most familiar with this particular ecology, and consequently many examples will be drawn from tropical settings. While certain examples or techniques are clearly limited to the tropics, they might be applied in other climates as well in one form or another — thinking this through is up to the interested reader. The outline of the ideas presented here should be sufficient to adapt them to almost all climate zones that can be sustainably inhabited by modern humans.
Not all of my thoughts on this topic are easy to digest, some sound quaint at first, and some are highly controversial. But for lack of alternatives to the current way of living (and slightly altered versions of it), I will try to lay out a roadmap to a better world for us and every other organism. This obviously includes a good bit of unprecedented optimism — and I will be accused of utopianism, idealism, naivety, and probably a few other, less friendly things. But the world I have in mind is not a bad one, and maybe you happen to find some of my ideas soothing and nurturing as well. The problem is not humanity by and large, it is merely our current culture of death and destruction.
There is no reason to give up all hope yet.
For reasons of convenience, I have also published the answers to each of the four questions separately, so you can read one at a time whenever you have a few minutes. You are currently viewing the full version — for the separate parts click here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.
All parts of this essay are of course completely free to access and not hidden behind a paywall. If you are more comfortable reading offline or on an ebook reader, you can also download the .pdf, .epub, and .mobi file here.
Part I: Who is really responsible for this massive ecological crisis (and who’s not)?
“True, western societies are much better off materially than they were 40 years ago, but why is there so much crime, vandalism and graffiti? Why are divorce rates so high? Why are we seeing declines in civic engagement and trust? Why have obesity and depression reached epidemic proportions, even amongst children? Why do people call this the age of anxiety? Why do studies in most developed countries show that people are becoming unhappier?”
— Richard Tomkins, Financial Times (October 17, 2003)
The answers you hear to the first question differ greatly, yet they all have one thing in common. Some people blame the meat and dairy industry with its factory farms and farting cows, others say it is all the fault of Big Oil. “Deforestation!”, you will hear, or, more generally speaking, “Big Agriculture.”
“It’s cheap air travel,” some will suggest, others might include container ships or even cars. Yet others will point at the fishing industry, the mining industry, or, on the luddite side of the spectrum, industry or technology itself (“the techno-industrial system!”). Consumerism or capitalism might be blamed. Progress and development. People will point out the US or China, based on statistic evidence. Occultists and pagans accuse the decline in spiritualism, and old-school environmentalists the decline in reverence for wild Nature. Managers, bankers, CEOs, politicians, all are suspects.
Of course, all of the aforementioned contribute to the problem. But the one common thread that connects all of them is wealth, and concomitantly power. Money is the dividing factor when it comes to environmental impact.
Study after study after study after study has proven the obvious: wealth is the number one indicator for environmental damage and the size of the carbon footprint. Wealthy countries have a vastly larger ecological footprint compared to “underdeveloped” and even most “developing” countries. Yet within those wealthy countries, there is a vast schism in terms of ecological damage between the well-off and the poor as well. Measuring the contribution of single nations (thinking in terms of nation-states is so twentieth century!) distracts us from the real culprit — the rich. One thing that the oil, meat, agriculture, timber, transportation, advertising, technology, aviation, shipping, automobile, and mining industries have in common with the government officials, politicians, bankers, and investors is that the people in the ranks wielding considerable power are all rich.
Instead of blaming the littering, trash-burning slum inhabitants and rice farmers of the developing world or the fast-food-consuming, plastic-wearing socially disadvantaged of the developed world, we should put focus on the inconspicuous-looking, well-dressed rich people hidden behind tinted limousine windows, in spacious lofts high above the city, or behind tall hedges on their country estates.
Rich people lead a disproportionately more destructive lifestyle than poor people. Sure, people from developed nations are statistically responsible to a higher degree than inhabitants of poor countries, and city people are generally more pollutive than their rural counterpart. But the excessively wealthy (and those who strive desperately to become like them) are most to blame, regardless of their nationality (but especially so if they are living in the urban or suburban centers of the developed world). The elite of Bangladesh, Nigeria or Guatemala is many times more dangerous to the environment than the lower class of the US or Europe. This is not so much about nationality, skin color or gender, (like the media wants you to believe — a distraction?) as it is about wealth — there are quite a few superrich women and black people, for example, who consume and pollute much more than lower class Caucasian males — so just blaming “white men” (like the left all too often does) shows injustices that we should definitely work to eliminate, but ultimately misses the point. It is first and foremost a class issue, and you can appreciate this whether you call yourself a communist or not.
All this indicates that we ought not look to the upper class when it comes to solving the pressing issues we’re facing. We cannot wait for them to make changes, because they won’t. Real change would cause them to lose their jobs and dramatically reduce their standard of living.
They might employ some fancy talk about “sustainable development” (which itself is a textbook example of an oxymoron), or publish 200-page-long “sustainability reports” for their shareholders (that nobody ever reads), they might change the color of their websites to green, use pictures of the natural world to advertise their products, or pay for fake ‘sustainability certificates’ for their companies — yet all this is merely window-dressing a slaughterhouse.
Ultimately they do nothing except for a few superficial changes, which they then focus all the publicity on. Their own private lives will not change, since (especially rich) people have a hard time reducing anything — once they have a certain standard of living, it seems almost impossible for them to give it up again. They might say they have no choice, they are just doing their job, people depend on them, but those are all blatant lies. Nobody needs mansions with five bedrooms and a vast park around them, or several vacation homes. Nobody needs private jets or luxury cars. Nobody needs to travel halfway around the planet every other week to attend “business meetings”, “charity events”, or fancy dinner parties. Nobody needs “luxury”.
Species extinctions of famous and beloved species like rhinos, elephants, or certain bird species are driven directly by rich people’s desire for “luxury goods” — rare and expensive items they use to distinguish themselves from the masses and show off their “status”. And even worse: plainly shooting rare animal species for fun is a favored pastime activity of the wealthy.
We cannot count on the rich people to steer us away from catastrophe, because they will be in their five-star bunkers or their private hideout in New Zealand, high above the ever-rising sea levels, or on board their 30m luxury yacht drinking champagne — while the rest of us fights for the few places that are still livable in the near future.
Even though I don’t have a lot of faith in political institutions, all this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote for environmentalist politicians, protest environmental crimes, or lobby environmental issues. It just means that we shouldn’t count on this strategy alone to bring about the required change. Chances of success are arguably slim, and it’s well-nigh impossible to beat the system at its own game (“if voting would change anything, they’d make it illegal”), but having people at least try to fight the rich ‘the legal way’ already helps keeping the rich at bay and avoiding the worst. So if there is a protest, you might as well join. Just don’t think that that’s enough.
It also doesn’t mean that all rich people are necessarily devils. We might be able to forgive them if they show real remorse — like using all their (stolen!) money to liberate land (during the transition period towards a regenerative mode of living), let it rewild, and make it accessible for people pledging to take good care of it.
Contrary to popular opinion, the system exists not because the people need it, it exists because the few who profit from it have enough power to maintain the status quo. People existed long before there even was any system, and they were fine without it. The people are under the false impression that they need the system, but only because the rich and powerful (some of whom own and control the mass media) purposely show no attractive alternatives to consumer-capitalism. And why should they? If there would be any alternative, even if only slightly better, millions of unhappy and involuntary urban workers would quit their jobs, withdraw from city life, and finally desert from this stressful, time-consuming and exploitative system. This would cause the rich great losses in potential profits, and leave them with a smaller workforce to keep the system running (and make themselves richer in the process). The rich peoples’ jobs and livelihood depends on the people having no alternative, so that they will stay docile, keep consuming, and go to work despite not liking it. The elites constantly spread untrue gossip through their propaganda channels to maintain the status quo: Humans need the system, because who will feed them if not genetically modified crops, industrial farming and supermarkets? Humans need technology, because otherwise how would they survive and what would they do in their free time? Look at what we have, look at how far we’ve come! Aren’t all those shiny toys we produce great? Don’t they make your life better? Oh, imagine how grey and somber your life would be without all those things! You are truly lucky to live in our civilization!
If you try to challenge a rich person face-to-face by pointing out their disproportionate share in the damage inflicted on the natural world, they will sometimes warn you not to “bite the hand that feeds you” — you depend on the employers to get money and on the system for the basic necessity of life, so you better not dare to insult its rulers. Of course, they don’t really feed you, they merely give you money which is not edible. Feeding someone implies intimate care, and to them you’re a replaceable cog in the machine.
Anyway, it becomes much easier to criticize elites if you feed yourself, since only then can you bite as many hands as you want without ever fearing to go hungry. This is what they are really afraid of, and this is why this society makes it so difficult for people to pursue a self-sufficient lifestyle. When you don’t depend on them for your food and water, they lose control and influence over you.
This is the direction in which we should go. There are alternatives, and they might be even better on the individual level than everything our civilization promises.
Surprisingly enough it is anthropology — a field of study that came into being with the sole purpose of finding evidence for the alleged superiority of Western civilization — that may finally bring the house of cards down.
Humans outside or on the fringes of our civilizations have led a content, purposeful and happy life, at least as long as we left them alone. Primitive people not only have the smallest ecological footprint of all humans, their simple life is — contrary to popular belief — full of joy, leisure and pleasure.
They are proud of their way of life, and not afraid to defend it with their very lives. Don’t believe me? Ask a member of one of the few still remaining tribes of ‘savages’ if they think they need technology and a sheer endless flow of material goods.
Yanomami shaman and jungle inhabitant Davi Kopenawa, who already spoke to the parliaments of several Western countries in his campaign to defend the Amazon rainforest, scolds us and our culture:
“It is the white people who are greedy and make people suffer at work to extend their cities and accumulate their merchandise [consumer goods] there, not us! This merchandise is truly like a fiancée to them! Their thought is so attached to it that if they damage it while it is still shiny, they get so enraged that they cry! They are really in love with it! They go to sleep thinking about it like you doze off with the nostalgia of a beautiful woman. It occupies their thoughts even after they fall asleep. So they dream of their car, their house, their money, and all their other goods — of those they already possess and those they desire again and again. It is so. Merchandise makes them euphoric and obscures all the rest of their mind.
As for me, I do not have a taste for possessing much merchandise. My mind cannot set itself on it. In the beginning its attractive, yes, but it quickly gets damaged and then we start to miss it. I do not want to keep such things in my mind. For me, only the forest is a precious good. Knives get blunt, machetes get chipped, pots get black, hammocks get holes, and the paper skins of money come apart in the rain. Meanwhile, tree leaves can stiffen and fall, but they will always grow back, as beautiful and bright as before.”
His words are collected in a remarkable book that everybody should read in their lifetime, if just to extend their horizon and get a more wholesome perspective on humans and our place in this world. In ‘The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman’, he explores and explains his own and our culture in great detail, and makes it clear that our behavior is neither natural nor necessary. Another, much simpler way of life is actually much better in terms of quality than the monstrous cities we’ve built for ourselves and that we are so proud of.
“For me, it is not at all pleasant to live in the city. My thought is always worried and my chest short of breath. I don’t sleep well there, I only eat strange things, and I am always afraid I will be hit by a car. I can never think calmly in the city. It is a worrisome place. People constantly ask you for money for everything, even to drink or urinate. Everywhere you go you find a multitude of people rushing in every direction though you don’t know why. You walk quickly among strangers, without stopping or talking, from one place to another. The lives of white people who hurry around all day like ants seem sad to me. They are always impatient in the city an anxious not to get to their job late or be thrown away. They barely sleep and run all day in a daze. They only talk about working and the money they lack. They live without joy and age rapidly, constantly busying themselves with acquiring new merchandise, their minds empty. Once their hair is white, they disappear, and the work — which never dies — survives them without end. Then their children and grandchildren continue doing the same thing!”
Recorded, transcribed and translated, the words of this tribal elder resonate with our current crisis, and show that an alternative does not only exist, but that it is being pursued successfully for hundreds of thousand years until this very day. Those leading this lifestyle are not only proud of it, but they won’t trade it for anything:
“I know now that our ancestors inhabited this forest from the beginning of time and that they left it for us to live in after them. They never mistreated it. Its trees are beautiful and its soil fertile. The wind and the rain keep it cool. We eat its game, its fish, the fruit of its trees, and its wild honeys. We drink the waters from its rivers. Its humidity makes the banana plants, the manioc, the sugarcane, and everything we plant in our gardens grow. We travel through it to go to the reahu fests we are invited to. We lead our hunting and gathering expeditions along its many trails. The spirits live in it and play all around us. Omama [the god who created sky, the rivers, the forest and its inhabitants] created this land and brought us to existence here. He planted the mountains to hold the ground in place and turned them into the houses of the xapiri [spirits], whom he left to take care of us. It is our land and these are true words.”
It is the reckless invasion of our culture with its missionaries, gold miners, loggers and poachers that made him come out of the forest and speak up for his people and the forest itself.
“These white people are truly enemies of the forest. They do not know how to eat what comes from it. They can only clear it like koyo [leafcutter] ants. And all this not to grow anything there! Just to sow weeds [grazing grounds] they abandon as soon as they become stunted and their cattle grows skinny!”
And it is not only the Yanomami who think like that. On the other side of the globe, in the forests of Borneo in Malaysia, primitive tribes are threatened by encroaching land development and logging operations. The Penan tribe, which got famous after Swiss national Bruno Manser lived with them for six years, holds similar views about our culture and its aspirations. In another account of aboriginal thought, ‘Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rain Forest’ author Wade Davis makes their voice heard through word-by-word translations of their speeches accompanying pictures of the astonishing beauty of their life in the forest. Lejeng Kusin, an elderly woman of the Ubong River Penan, finds moving words:
“And if this forest were cut down, if this place were ruined by logging, they wouldn’t need to send two or three people here to assault us and kill is. They could send just one person, and he would be strong enough to kill as all for sure. Because we are not used to seeing open spaces, we are not used to seeing trees that have been felled and destroyed. Because there would be nothing left to make us want to live, because the trees we yearn for would have been destroyed. And if they were to say that we were happy, happy in this place after it is logged, it would really mean that they do not want us to live. They do not want us to be happy. They want to assault us and kill us. Surely we don’t feel happy or proud about the logging because all these bulldozers, all this logging, is harmful to us. This is our problem, this is our difficulty. We can never be happy living on red ground. And we always feel sad and troubled. When we look at the forest that has been destroyed, we feel the way one feels after not having eaten for a long time.
We yearn for the sounds of the forest. We have always heard these sounds. In the time of our grandparents long ago we heard these sounds. That is why we still yearn to hear them. In those times long ago, our lives were satisfying, our lives were fulfilled. And now it is harder for us, because we hear the sound of bulldozers. And that is what we always talk about, we women, when we get together. How will we live, how will we thrive, now that we have all these new problems? To us the sound of bulldozers is the sound of death. We feel sorrowful, we weep, when we see the forest has been destroyed, when we see the red land. It is hard for us to look at the red land.”
Similarly, Mutang Urud, a member of the Kelabit people and a neighbor to the Penan, addressed the UN General Assembly in 1992:
“The government says that it is bringing us progress and development. But the only development that we see is dusty logging roads and relocation camps. For us, their so-called progress means only starvation, dependence, helplessness, the destruction of our culture, and the demoralization of our people. The government says it is creating jobs for our people. But these jobs [as loggers] will disappear along with the forest. In ten years, the jobs will all be gone, and the forest which has sustained us for thousands of years will be gone with them.
Why do we need jobs? My father and my grandfather did not have to ask the government for jobs. They were never unemployed. They lived from the land and from the forest. It was a good life. We had much leisure time, yet we were never hungry, or in need. These company jobs take men away from their families for months at a time. They are breaking apart the vital links that have held our families and our communities together for generations. These jobs bring our people into a consumer economy for which they are not prepared.
An old man I know once asked a policeman why it was he could not blockade a road on his own land. The policemen told him that Yayasan Sarawak [a Malaysian foundation] had been given the license to log the forest, and so the land belongs to the company. This is what the old man said in reply: “Who is this Yayasan Sarawak? If he really owns the land, why have I never met him in the forest during my hunting trips over the last sixty years?”
A woman I know who has seven children once came to me and said, “This logging is like a big tree that has fallen on my chest. I often awake in the middle of the night, and I and my husband talk endlessly about the future of our children. I always ask myself, when will it end?””
The reason why I quote those tribal people at such great length is that they show that an alternative does not only exist, but that it seems to be a really comfortable alternative that works not only for humans but for the entire ecosystem they inhabit.
This might sound ridiculous, but only if you haven’t tried.
I for myself would have never even thought about defending the “civilized” lifestyle I was leading during the years of my adolescence, let alone with my life! I knew it was wrong and destructive, there just didn’t seem to be an alternative to it. This is why I chose to quit my job, flee the city, and head off into what I thought of as “Nature” at that time. I thought that if I learn how to feed and shelter myself, I would be one step further towards independence and true freedom. While this proved to be true, it was studying the lives of primitive tribes that finally showed me a real alternative that is truly sustainable on the long term, and I came to admire the courage of tribes all over the world defending an ancient, natural way of life for humans. I also learned that you don’t have to move into the wilderness to live a much simpler life close to Nature — you can start with severely degraded farmland, as I did, and in a matter of only five years (in tropical climate) you will have a small forest brimming over with life that supplies you with everything you need, from a wide variety of foods to building materials like wood, bamboo, palm thatch and rope.
But the climate zone doesn’t seem to matter much. There are many people who, fed up with society, successfully pursue this lifestyle all over the world, as far north as Alaska! There are, for example, over 1500 registered intentional communities worldwide, many of which grow their own food and are or aspire to be self-sufficient.
We evolved over millions of years to fit into natural ecological niches, developed a uniquely human lifestyle checked and balanced by our environment, and lived together as a supportive group of a few close friends and family members anthropologists call ‘tribe’. Our body hasn’t changed much since the Stone Age (at least not for the better!), and deep inside we’re still wild animals. We need Nature, we are inseparably part of her, and the more we deny this, the worse it makes us feel deep down.
Now, after a few thousand years of destroying our environment to build shiny things, we think we’ve created ourselves a much better niche than Nature could ever have. But if this new, artificial niche is really all that good seems to be more and more in question. Somehow it doesn’t seem to work on the long term. We have more merchandise than ever before, yes, but to the benefits of civilized life really outweigh the hazards? What about all the invisible dangers, the pollution, the noise, the stress, the constant sensory overload? All the invisible things that slowly erode our sanity subconsciously, without us even noticing until one day we break down?
Just because we can survive in the city doesn’t mean this is how we’re supposed to live. We surround ourselves with nothing but other humans and artifice, and wonder why we sometimes still feel alone in this world. We forget that there is something else.
If we want to find a way out of our crisis, we have to look to the people who know and love their environment, call other living beings their family, and who evidently caused the least damage for the longest period of time. After all, we are exactly the same: the difference between city- and jungle homo sapiens is a mere cultural one. We have to open our ears to their words, and allow them to teach us what we’ve forgotten.
The capitalists on the other hand can’t and won’t have any helpful advice, since they are the most polluting members of society, and pollution, exploitation and destruction is the very basis of their lifestyle and ideology.
They happily blame the end consumer, saying that he or she needs to eat less meat/take shorter showers/install a solar panel/cycle to work/buy organic/donate to a charity/be more ‘mindful’ — but all this merely distracts from the damage they themselves are doing.
The materially richest and the materially poorest are as different as is possible, and it seems more and more that we have to choose sides. The choice is similar to that given to Achilles by the gods: do we want a short life of (false and meaningless) glory, with a violent ending? Or do we want a long, mediocre life at peace, and die of old age? Either we go for protecting Nature, or for destroying it. Every day we make a choice.
And every day, most of us choose to work for the system in exchange for a tiny part of its gains (which are Nature’s losses), just enough to keep us somewhat motivated and docile, never more.
The exploitation and therefore destruction of Nature is absolutely fundamental to financial profit of almost any kind. Without the (self-destructive and evolutionary unstable) idea that Nature is free for everyone to exploit without restrain, capitalism simply wouldn’t be possible. Wealth doesn’t appear out of nowhere. Most capital was once a part of an ecosystem, which got extracted (stolen), deformed, and sold to make a profit. Nature provides so-called “ecosystem services” free of charge (since money is only important to one of the 10 million species on this planet), without which no corporation would make profit. A team of economists calculated in 1997 that for every dollar worth of goods and services consumed by humans annually, 75 cents (!) are provided by the Earth’s ecosystems — completely free of charge, first come, first served.
If you would ask those ecosystems and their inhabitants what they think of this (and if you would understand their answers), it would become obvious that this unpaid service is involuntary, and could therefore more accurately be called ‘ecosystem slavery’. But that sounds closer to the ugly truth, which we are so busy hiding because we are afraid to change our lives.
This ‘ecosystem slavery’ directly causes social inequality as well, since rich people always reap the most profits from destroying Nature — and the poor usually suffer most of the consequences.
Rich people can easily escape pollution, heat, noise, rising sea levels, hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, floods, and crop failures. They have the financial means to travel or flee wherever they want, move to higher ground, buy air-conditioning, isolated windows, and food for every price from international markets. They are firmly confident that if they have money, they don’t need the ecosystem. Nature, for them inherently useless for anything else but human profit, is nothing more than a missed opportunity to make money.
It is in their direct interest to eradicate habitat after habitat to make more money. It is not the loggers, miners or poachers that make all the money, they are usually given a ridiculously small part of the profit — just enough to stay alive and continue doing their job.
This is how it has been ever since rich people came into being: once the earliest elites were established, it became business-as-usual for them to expand the territory they exploit, resulting in ever more riches for themselves. All this was and is done at the expense of humans, other animals, and plants inhabiting those wild places, who were and are driven off their land or killed. To keep the money coming in, more land needed to be cleared, more grain needed to be planted, and more resources needed to be extracted. The 10,000-year history of our civilization is characterized by elites leading the transformation wild places into profitable land, traditionally through forcing commoners to do the work and extracting taxes under threat of violence. In this regard little has changed over the millennia.
If you follow down the lavishly furnished rabbit hole of rich-people-history, you will, like the (purposely apolitical) members of a growing weltanschauung called (Anarcho-)Primitivism, end up blaming the very first system that created the very first elites: the earliest agricultural civilizations and their economic surplus. Without agriculture, no surplus, and without surplus, no elites.
Thinking this through until the very end, it becomes obvious that it all started spinning out of control when humans changed to a sedentary, agricultural mode of living, therefore creating cities, elites, power, wealth, injustice, laws, armies, priests, slavery, organized warfare, famine, epidemic disease, and all the other great joys and wonders of civilization.
Agriculture, roughly defined as monocropping on the field scale (from Latin ‘ager’: field) is inherently expansive and destructive, since the carbohydrate-based diet and sedentary lifestyle enabled by agriculture allows rapid population growth, and because of the opportunities for power it creates.
Stable carbohydrates like grains automatically signal food security to the body, and therefore increase the likelihood of pregnancy in women. With soft food (boiled grains) readily available, children can be weaned earlier, and pregnancies can be spaced shorter when one lives sedentary (as opposed to nomadic, where one has to carry a child everywhere). While tribal life is easier with a limited number of kids, in an agricultural society you can never have enough. First of all to replace the ones dying from malnourishment, famine or epidemic, and second to turn them into a free workforce for creating an ever-greater surplus, which optimally translates to greater wealth and concomitantly power.
We humans are a species walking the fine line between cooperation and competition, peacefulness and violence, egalitarianism and hierarchy, or, how I like to phrase it, between Bonobo and Chimpanzee. We can successfully do both, as history shows, yet one side tends to make people happier — especially in the long run. Humans have a soft spot for power, and while people can live out their most cruel and megalomaniac fantasies in the agricultural land of plenty, hunter-gatherers have developed sophisticated mechanisms to eliminate much this power-drive for the sake of group stability and overall happiness. When Richard Lee went to study the indigenous Ju/’hoan people of the Kalahari Desert, an old healer told him:
“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
Anyhow, it is virtually impossible to exert much power over anyone in a society in which everybody knows all skills necessary to survive (and can therefore just run away), and in which people don’t acquire and worship merchandise (that can be appropriated). Leadership in agricultural societies is based on material wealth and bloodlines, while leadership among hunter-gatherers is usually flexible and transitory, and depends on factors such as an individual’s wisdom, knowledge, skill, charisma, cleverness, persuasiveness, or whatever else is needed in a particular situation.
But if even agriculture is wrong, what is the alternative? How can we avoid elites to emerge again and again, how can we stop them from turning us and the ecosystems we inhabit into their servants?
Don’t worry, we don’t all have to become hunter-gatherers in order to avoid the worst — even more so, if we would all start foraging tomorrow, the planet would be devoid of edible plants and wildlife within a week.
There is a better way, a way of resisting, refusing, rethinking, reducing, restoring, rehabilitating, reviving, and rewilding. A way of regeneration, rediscovery, and reconnection.
We will have to change our lives enormously, work hard, and probably shift to an entirely new subsistence mode. But one thing at a time.
First, we need to figure out what the goal is and how we will get there.
Part II: What does “living sustainably” even mean (and is it really the goal)?
“A culture is no better than its woods.”
— W.H. Auden
“Sustainability” is the battle cry of a new wave of ‘green’ capitalists who seek to take advantage of the ecological crisis by selling people more goods and services that are supposedly good for the environment, and of feel-good consumers who literally buy their lies. It is generally seen as something positive, yet only few people seem to grasp what this term really means. A definition everyone can agree upon is “being able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”. Sustainable lays between de- and regenerative, with “degenerative” describing the current prevailing lifestyle, and “regenerative” being systems like forests or coral reefs, which, if left alone, accumulate biomass, store carbon (!), grow in size, and produce an ever-greater abundance of diversity. (Diversity is important in evolution, because it translates to resilience. The greater the diversity of species, the safer it is that at least some will survive changing external conditions.)
The world can hardly ‘sustain’ 7.5 billion people, especially so if they all strive for the lifestyle of the developed world. Furthermore, it is not enough to merely sustain our current level of material wealth and consumption if we want to avoid the worst. “Living sustainable” at best means that if everyone would live like that, environmental conditions would not worsen.
In a dying world this is not enough.
Ask yourself: do you personally know anybody who lives truly sustainable? Probably not. Maybe you know of a few small-scale farmers or homesteaders, but I highly doubt that they really lead a sustainable life. Do they use electricity from a solar cell? A computer (like me)? A smartphone? A car? Power tools? There you have it.
If you want true sustainability, you can’t have any of the aforementioned, since they all require the technoindustrial system of extracting, refining, processing, transporting, assembling, distributing and, finally, discarding. Each of those steps is an act of war against Nature.
At the very least, certain parts of those machines will need to be replaced, and those parts are all supplied by the technoindustrial system. For example, no community can mine, extract, melt, purify, and shape the copper needed for electrical wires all by themselves.
The facilities, techniques, infrastructure and knowledge required to do this surpass everything that can be achieved by cooperating with — not dominating — Nature.
Anything that you can’t produce from locally gathered materials, either alone or with the help of a few friends, can hardly ever be sustainable, because every rate of decline in ecosystem stability leads to its collapse eventually. This means neither electric lights, nor solar cells, computers, mobile phones, dishwashers, toasters, automobiles, aircraft, or cities can ever be sustainable.
(I am not saying it is entirely impossible, but I have yet to meet the person that can build a smartphone or a skyscraper in a sustainable fashion.)
When we talk about sustainability, this also automatically implies that we think over the long term. Nobody can be sure after five or ten years that his lifestyle is “sustainable”, since those short time intervals don’t mean anything to the Earth herself. If we were to travel 100,000 years into the future and that lifestyle would be still predominant, we might start using the word “sustainable”. Again, humans have been foragers for over three million years, so speaking of a natural foraging lifestyle as ‘sustainable’ is a correct way to use the term. Using ‘sustainable’ to describe your “green” start-up or business strategy after a mere two years is not.
The main reason why all international climate summits and mainstream environmentalist “solutions” fail is because they ask “how do we keep the ecosystem from collapsing — while still keeping our current standard of living?” Their interpretation of “sustainability” means the sustaining of our present wealth, lifestyle and comforts. They still focus on jobs, the economy, profits, and technology. The real ‘Inconvenient Truth’ is that we will have to give up all of the aforementioned if we ever want to achieve anything that might be called sustainable. Cities are not sustainable, globalization is not sustainable, industrialism is not sustainable, and neither are consumerism, capitalism, democracy, nation-states, governments, and companies. People slowly wake up to this — and they are terrified. Most people in the developed world can’t and don’t want to imagine a world without capitalism — yet this is where we’re heading either way, if the system continues to work or ceases to do so.
What are the alternatives? A new Dark Age? Widespread famine and epidemics? War and genocide?
The reality will most likely be much less gruesome than Hollywood wants us to believe (remember who controls the media and its tales of no alternatives to the way things are?), even though there are a number of burdens to overcome. A rapid collapse of the current order might not turn out pretty in densely populated areas such as cities, but maybe this would be some form of strange, erratic justice being done in the name of Nature, judged by the size of the carbon footprint. But if we would gradually convert to a different lifestyle intentionally, dangers are limited.
Inhabitants of cities are definitely the most vulnerable when it comes to disruptions in the system. No more oil? No electricity? No running water? Disturbances in the distributions of goods? Even if only temporary (meaning a few weeks or even months), in any of those scenarios the city would plunge into chaos. Since many rich people live in densely populated areas, it is their first and foremost priority to ensure that everything runs smoothly within this artificial habitat.
Why do you think the environment is being destroyed right now? The answer is: to satisfy the material demands of the rich city people, and those who blindly strive to be like them (and therefore the urban-centered lifestyle, which is predominant even in today’s rural areas). The city wants water, food, concrete, iron, steel, asphalt, coal, oil, aluminum, copper, wood, sand, plastic, minerals, silicon, gold, lithium, graphite, and glass — and the city makes damn sure it is going to get them.
A city that doesn’t require the import (read: the exploitation) of materials from the outside might be called sustainable — but this is virtually impossible. This hypothetical city would have to produce a great number of natural goods and services all by itself and completely give up a similar quantity of things, and this would in turn automatically lead to it becoming a semi-rural area, not a city.
We can’t think about helping the environment without having an honest conversation about the future of cities. They are inherently unsustainable: they constantly grow, and as they grow they require an ever-larger area around them to be exploited to satisfy their needs. If we want sustainability, we should reduce the cities’ size and deflate clearly unsustainable levels of population density. This does not mean genocide, it simply means redistribution: returning to the land.
Either way, cities are completely overrated — they are the most ugly and unnatural assembly of monotonous concrete blocks, steel and asphalt, polluted by thousands of exhausts and smokestacks, terribly overcrowded, and ridden with stress- and diet-related disease and the highest levels of alienation possible. Most of the urban population worldwide is there against their will or for lack of alternatives (driven by land theft, displacement, demographic stress, economic depression, and empty promises) and many would love to return to their old life in the countryside if anyhow possible.
There is so little exposure to Nature in the city that a growing number of its inhabitants already feel that humans don’t need the natural world to survive. After all, look at them thriving in the artificial environment they themselves have created! They even contemplate multi-storied vertical farms, so that the city can be completely cut off from the countryside. Then, finally, can the city expand to devour the whole planet.
But once you leave the city for good, it often becomes increasingly obvious that moving back would not be an option.
The longer I live in my garden, the more I dislike going to the city — something that I seem to have in common with Davi Kopenawa. I avoid going there as good as I can, and even the monthly trip to pay the bills is terribly exhausting. Living the simple life means doing things yourself, which makes you a lot stronger physically — but you are only stronger in the environment you’re used to, not in others. In the city I often feel dizzy, light-headed, and the constant noise and smell gives me headaches. I often hold my breath when I drive behind large SUV’s or trucks, because the smell of their exhaust fumes makes me gag with disgust. I feel the city draining my energy, and I can only relax again once I’ve returned to the garden and jumped into the pond to wash off the dust and pollution.
Seeing the masses of people there who have absolutely no idea what’s going on in this world and who don’t care about anything but the tiny little cages, their home, their workplace, their car, their fitness studio, that civilization gifts them with, always makes me sad and angry. How come all those people act without thinking about the long-term consequences? How can they be so stupid? Then I remember that, not long ago, I myself acted rather stupid, without thinking much. Just a mere five years ago, some anti-modernist permaculture farmer might have seen me walking through the city and thought exactly the same. Yet here I am, changed to the point where I sometimes forget how life in civilization makes you feel, and how difficult it is at times. Had I known what to look for, which books to read, whom to ask, and where to search for answers, my quest would have been even shorter. The good thing is: all the information and knowledge is already out there, free for anybody willing to invest a little precious time, and people who are conscious about the pressing environmental issues and see the bigger picture are doing one hell of a job informing people.
If all those people roaming the city would start their own personal journey today, they’d be living better in under half a decade.
City life makes people stressed, weak and unhealthy, yet those who run the cities never stop preaching how wonderful everything is. In excellent Orwellian doublespeak they praise our architects’ creativity, our engineers’ ingenuity, and our construction workers’ strength and skill, as they work to extend the city in all directions and on all axis, horizontally and vertically. And this propaganda sits very deep!
People these days often extol ‘human ingenuity’, marveling at machines, medicines and skyscrapers, like it was them themselves who invented and built them. The ones who are the proudest of our “collective achievements” are often those who have the smallest share in their accomplishment. Anybody priding themselves on ‘human achievements’ is invited to build me a space shuttle, a skyscraper, a satellite, or a smartphone, or even just to find me a local healing plant.
Yes, we can go wherever we want in a matter of hours, yes we can travel to a different continent over the weekend, yes we can order fresh food from halfway around the world, but should we really be proud of all that? Are those really good things?
The very act of staying globally connected comes with a huge carbon price tag. Fossil fuels are required and irreplaceable to push the heavy container ships through the oceans and lift up our airplanes.
New IATA (International Air transport Association) data shows that — environmental conditions permitting — in 20 years the global number of flights will double (as will the number of passengers transported and the number of total aircraft, logically). This is a textbook example of reckless degeneration for entirely superficial and selfish gains, and the exact opposite of the regenerative action our planet needs so desperately.
Sure, all those things seem impressive at first sight. But remove the degenerative globalized economy and the capitalists from the equation, and it becomes very difficult to construct a skyscraper or assemble a smartphone (and why would you, anyway?). Just because some members of our species take part in making them doesn’t mean you and me can be proud of it if we can’t do it ourselves. Most people today can’t even start a fire without matches, yet they talk of themselves as having conquered the planet.
Living regeneratively, small-scale and local, we should be proud of only our own achievements and that of our community, and only if they don’t interfere with Nature’s ecosystems. If you can build your own house from natural materials, heal sick neighbors with herbs from your garden, make durable furniture from bamboo, grow delicious fruit for your family and friends, or make strong bows and straight arrows, you can be damn proud of yourself, and you can be sure people around you would show you their appreciation.
If anything, our economic activity has to break up from the global to the local, human scale.
Only in small-scale local efforts can we find true sustainability.
Other animals and plants live ‘sustainably’ on the long run, since they keep each other’s numbers in balance by feeding on each other and rarely use up more resources than they need. They usually do so instinctively, and if they fail to do so, they will suffer the consequences, which may range from discomfort, over hunger, to death. Present-day hunter-gatherer societies all over the world make use of plants that act as contraceptives to limit population levels.
It is only us modern humans who disturbed this balance with creating a positive feedback loop in which increased food production leads to increased population, which then leads to increased food production again.
A sustainable population level is of course not always linear, but shows some level of oscillation between two extremes — yet every rise is followed by an equal decline. The exponential population explosion of human beings over the last 10,000 years is the complete opposite. If we want sustainability, now a downwards curve has to follow. This might happen through war, genocide, or disaster, fast, far beyond our control, and on unimaginable scale (if civilization is not stopped) — or through lifestyle changes, natural selection, wise decisions, and the use of plants (if we allow Nature to take the steering wheel once more).
Natural selection is a difficult topic that modern civilized humans dislike and try to avoid, but which is ultimately inescapable. Nature selects for sustainability, so sooner or later our current lifestyle will disappear anyway. Natural selection in humans (and in most other animal species) does not mean “survival of the strongest”, it means “survival of the fittest”, as in “survival of the one who fits best in his or her ecological niche”. One reason it is shunned today is our culture’s overblown and pathetic fear of death. Another is because of its eugenic overtone, even though in eugenics it is the human, not Nature, which selects. Hunter-gatherers are definitely subject to natural selection, yet they are not fascist superhumans, but everyday normal people like you and me (although probably quite a bit healthier).
Environmentalist author Derrick Jensen famously wrote that the only really sustainable level of technology (and therefore way of life) was the Stone Age. And this is not far from the truth! If an agricultural society experiences the population boom made possible by surpluses and a carbohydrate-rich diet, they will soon need to expand their arable land (cut down forests) to sustain themselves and their increasingly numerous offspring.
Primitive “Stone Age” people know very well of the dangers of overpopulation, namely the increased competition for limited local resources that might lead to war. This is why in many places they have perfected a lifestyle over the millennia that maintains a certain population density through lifestyle adaptions like extended breastfeeding, shared parenthood (a woman who is almost constantly breastfeeding is less likely to become pregnant, and some tribes like the Huaorani even breastfeed pet dogs and monkeys), and the use of plant medicines that act as antifertility agents.
It is safe to say that very, very few of the solutions proposed so far, neither the majority of UN “Sustainable Development Goals”, nor “green” energy and technology are really sustainable. Even worse, they are degenerative, because they are all based on cities, businesses, the economy, growth, technological progress, and therefore the extraction of resources (read: the destruction of Nature) and the conversion of “natural capital” to digital money. While proposing to reduce our impact on the planet’s ecosystems, they never even dare to propose stopping the machine. But what goes up must come down — and down it will come, whether we choose to dismantle or to collaborate with it.
So far we’ve learned that “sustainable” is often not all that good, that a lot of things that are being called sustainable are actually degenerative, and that “becoming sustainable” will not be enough to avert the coming catastrophe.
We don’t have the luxury to go straight to sustainable — because of all the damage we’ve inflicted upon the planet so far, we have to go through a phase of actively being regenerative before we can settle at a sustainable lifestyle.
Regenerative means restoring topsoil, diversity, habitats and ecosystems, reforesting every place possible, replanting native trees and plants, and rewilding the land and ourselves in the process.
We will have to go through a phase of intensive regeneration before we can settle at ‘sustainable’.
Overall, the transition to a regenerative mode of living (and therefore the collapse of the current system) can happen in a predominantly peaceful manner. People usually behave much more humane in times of crises, as we can observe in places where natural disasters struck. People help and support each other, and any “violent” behavior (such as looting) is usually targeted at concentrated spots of wealth and/or much-needed goods — supermarkets or other stores — which are a manifestation of our culture’s unfair distribution of basic necessities anyway. I won’t dare to make any predictions about trigger-happy cultures like parts of the US, or extremely alienated and overpopulated places like China’s megalopolises.
But, generally speaking, you see people rediscovering their empathy and compassion once crisis hits. Most people are frightened deep down that if they treat somebody bad who’s in need, it will come back at them. When survival is at stake, even starkly differing political views like racism dissolve, since there obviously are more important things to figure out first. People start to matter for who they are and what they do, not for what color their skin is, which party they voted for, or whether they have a penis or not.
We are, as I said before — metaphorically, primatologically and genetically speaking — as much Bonobo as we are Chimpanzee.
While the media undoubtedly tries to scare us as much as possible about the presumably violent alternative to civilization (think about movies like Mad Max, The Survivalist, The Domestics, Hell, The Last Survivors, or What Still Remains), if you look at history, there might be reason not to worry too much. Usually humans have been most violent when civilizations thrived, and Dark Ages weren’t always death and destruction. As I have pointed out elsewhere, James C. Scott has written in his book Against the Grain that dark ages were a time where oppressive systems (city- or nation-states) ceased to exist, taxation stopped, armies dissolved, slaves were freed, and personal freedom flourished. Most people simply returned to a more self-sufficient way of living.
In the 400-year-long dark age that followed the collapse of the Greek Empire literacy was lost, so what exactly happened in this period remains subject to the imagination of civilized historians — yet there is ample reason to believe that the people in this period lived lives of independence and freedom, without fear of war and conquest, and were more connected to their immediate human community and their natural environment.
What do we really need to live? We need good, healthy food, clean water and fresh air. We need a shelter to protect us from the elements, and a social group to correspond and cooperate with. We don’t need smartphones, microwaves, computers, factories, airplanes, containerships, or cities.
Bruno Manser wrote in his diary during his stay with the Penan tribe:
“My experiment leads me back to the origin, to a life of abstinence and modesty. A healthy environment and enough food are the external conditions for happiness — he who complains with a full stomach and in a peaceful environment will still complain even if he owns half the world.”
We are desperately trying to make city life more sustainable, without realizing that it is the very concept of cities that is inherently unsustainable. It would be much easier to give up on trying to improve upon a project doomed to fail, and start not with degenerative cities, but with regenerative forests.
Nature, the ultimate regenerative system, would recover and thrive anyway if we humans were to disappear. We can’t live sustainably when we try to dominate Nature, but only if we find our place in the ecosystem without disturbing it any more than necessary.
Part III: What can we do?
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
— Albert Einstein
The answer to this might surprise you, anger you, or make you laugh.
Truth is, the vast majority of people have absolutely no idea just how radically they will have to change their life. We will have to give up plenty of so-called ‘comforts’ and ‘luxuries‘ (which are utterly unimportant and useless anyway, as anyone who has seriously tried can confirm).
We will have to go back to the land, get to know it, and learn how to live with it and within it.
First, let us explore the core problem (greenhouse gasses, or, more accurately, atmospheric carbon levels that perpetuate climate breakdown) in greater detail:
There are five important carbon sinks (or stores): the atmosphere, the lithosphere (fossil deposits), the hydrosphere (oceans), the forests (biosphere), and the soils. Carbon was cycled through the ecosystems for literally billions of years, with Nature keeping the balance (with the exception of the occasional Mass Extinction Event, of course, which usually had something to do with a rapid atmospheric carbon de- or increase, or the greenhouse effect in general).
Ever since our agricultural culture (the first civilizations) entered the scene 10,000 years ago, things changed a lot: we started burning and clear-cutting forests on a massive scale, multiplied without constraint, modified the landscape to serve our will, and ultimately dug up all the fossil fuels Nature had so carefully placed in safe distance deep underground — just to let our machine slaves spew them back out into the atmosphere.
This time, for the first time in the planet’s history, the major imbalance was not only avoidable, but is entirely the fault of one single species. Each day that we fail to act despite knowing the effects of our misdeeds contributes to the increasingly unsurpassable consequences of our blind hedonism, our incapability, stupidity and arrogance.
If we want to avoid our own extinction (and that of millions of other species), we would have to find a way to quickly transfer vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere to the carbon pools we can easily influence in a positive way: the forests and the soils.
The atmosphere is already more than oversaturated with CO2, and even the ocean, the biggest carbon sink, has difficulties coping with the sheer scale — acidification and the concomitant loss of marine life are among the consequences. The depletion and combustion of fossil deposits of carbon are what caused the extremely high levels of CO2 in our atmosphere in the first place, so if we want to change anything, we better stop extracting and burning any more fossil fuels, leave them where they are, shut down the mines, factories and refineries, and send the workers on leave.
Only 25 corporations (all of which are in the fossil fuel business) are responsible for over half of greenhouse gas emissions, so the first step would be to abandon those workplaces. Seriously, just quit.
They depend on the workers, not the other way around. If we would just find a way to satisfy our basic needs without being dependent on their money, we could set ourselves free. It should be of course a priority for all those who already produce food or own sufficient quantities of land to take those freed workers under their wings, and anybody taking this drastic step can be considered a hero.
If all this sounds “too radical”, ask yourself this: do you want your children (and yourself) to die of old age, or of premature, possibly violent causes? Do you want to starve, dehydrate, die from disease, or from excessive, inescapable heat, eyes burning, mouth dry, and tongue swollen? If we fail to act now, this is where we’re heading.
The two remaining carbon sinks we humans can most easily work with are the forests and the soils. Both of those are already under constant threat, and both lost a great amount of carbon once stored within them. Deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices are to blame for that (and, as previously learned, the rich people behind those efforts).
A hint to what needs to be done is the so-called Orbis Spike, a short but noticeable dip in atmospheric carbon dioxide captured in the Antarctic ice core around the year 1610. The Orbis Spike (from the Latin ‘orbis’: world) can be contributed to one of the most famous destroyer of a world (and consequently the creator of a new one): Christopher Columbus. When he and his men arrived in the “New” World, they carried smallpox and other diseases that quickly spread over the whole continent, killing over 50 million people in a matter of a few years. Many of the societies affected were horticultural or even agricultural ones, and the following gradual conversion of farmland back to forest was what caused this spike. The newly emerging trees sucked up so much carbon from the atmosphere that this led to a temporary cooling of the planet. This was the last time the climate cooled down before the anthropogenic exponential warming period began whose consequences we now start feeling in our everyday lives. Of course, carbon levels quickly went up again as new settlers arrived, clearcut the forests, and started farming themselves, but the lesson the Orbis Spike holds is important.
Luckily for us, we can achieve something similar without epidemic disease and the death of millions. All we have to do is convert monoculture farmlands to forests and learn to live with and in them, on an unprecedented scale.
After the collapse of the USSR something similar happened: about 110 million acres of farmland were abandoned, and started to rewild. Forest succession slowly converted the barren land, which started to fix more and more carbon. New estimates show that this abandoned farmland soaks up about 50 million tons (!) of carbon every year (that’s 0.05 Gt C — almost equal to the amount of the combined biomass of all humans on Earth), ever since it first fell fallow in 1990. To put this number into a broader context: that’s about 10 per cent of Russia’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions. This is remarkable, Jonathan Sanderman, soil chemist at CSIRO Land and Water in Australia, points out, since “most nations are only committed to 5 per cent reduction targets. So by doing absolutely nothing — by having depressed their economy — they’ve achieved quite a bit [emphasis added].” He also considers abandoned farmland the largest human-made carbon sink (!). The above-linked study’s co-author Irina Kurganova deems it possible that another 261 million tons will be sequestered over the next 30 years, until the forest reaches an equilibrium and releases almost as much carbon as it takes up.
The lesson this holds for us is that Nature can easily soak up vast quantities of carbon — as long as we don’t stand in her way. The key is, again, inaction towards natural processes.
On a similar note, the during the ‘Younger Dryas’ about 12,800 years ago, the climate suddenly cooled notably (by a few degrees Celsius). In this period, the atmospheric methane levels fell rapidly from about 680 to 450 ppb (by comparison, in November 2017 we reached 1887.7 ppb). So far, this was attributed to a reduction in methane emissions from wetlands due to cooler temperatures, but a promising new theory might explain what caused those initial cooler temperatures in the first place. This new theory holds that the plummeting of global temperatures was very likely caused by humans reaching the American continent and the subsequent ‘megafauna extinction’ of 114 species (amounting to millions of individuals) of large herbivores that took place when the emerging human population started overexploiting those enormous animal populations. Herbivores, especially of course in large numbers, are a notorious source of methane, so a rapid decline in herbivore population levels would cause an equally rapid drop in atmospheric methane levels. It has ben calculated that those megafauna losses during the Younger Dryas could explain anywhere between 12.5 and 100 (!) per cent of the decline in atmospheric methane, or up to 0.5° C of the cooling. While the exact numbers are still subject to some scientific controversy, it seems obvious that the loss of so many large herbivores over such a short time period must have some global effect.
Methane (CH4, a major constituent of natural gas) is between 28 and 32 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas — but much more short-lived. While CO2 stays in the atmosphere for anywhere between 20 and 200 years, methane breaks down in a mere 9 to 12 years. It seems like on the short run, we can accomplish a lot when we reduce methane emissions.
The easiest way to do this is to end factory farming of animals (without becoming overly dogmatic vegans in the process!), which would cause an unprecedented decline in atmospheric methane levels (and therefore a noticeable cooling in only 10 years from now), relieve billions of fellow animals from unimaginable suffering, free up a lot of land for humans to cultivate and take care of, reduce algae blooms and concomitant aquatic dead zones, and allow us to have one last big barbecue before our meat consumption will drop to more sustainable levels.
If we all were to become subsistence farmers, meat consumption would drop anyway because many people wouldn’t slaughter animals in the first place, and because keeping animals often requires more effort and care than planting crops (even though in colder climates other animals might be crucial to a regenerative diet). Some domestic animals would automatically rewild, and roam the countryside again. Once they reach sufficient, stable numbers, ‘limited hunting’ (obeying prohibitions to ensure that animal number stay constant) becomes an option again.
Domesticated animals and humans together make up 96% of all terrestrial mammals (60% is livestock, 36% are humans), and the combined biomass of livestock is about 0.1 gigatons carbon (compared with the combined biomass of all humans, about 0.06 Gt C, and that of wild mammals, 0.007 Gt C). Plants make up 450 (!) Gt C, and bacteria about 70 Gt C.
There is too much carbon (either as CO2 or as CH4) in the atmosphere, and atmospheric carbon needs to be fixed (“sequestered”) in large amounts in the soil or in living beings (“biomass”, e.g. trees) to stop CO2 and other greenhouse gasses from heating up the planet. Nature’s solution is to grow forests, our scientists’ solutions are geo-engineering and more technology (to sequester carbon). It is utterly ridiculous to think that we humans, one single species, can do this better than the system that has been doing it for eons.
Without human interference (starting with deforestation 10,000 years ago, but taking off especially after the Industrial Revolution) there would be no noteworthy global warming today (possibly even another Ice Age), so we can conclude that Nature, if left alone, would outbalance slight changes in the atmospheric carbon concentration quickly, and therefore prevent runoff climate change in the most efficient manner. If atmospheric carbon levels increase slightly, this can be easily reversed by faster-growing trees. But this natural rebalancing cannot happen if we humans cut those trees and burn them.
Unlucky for us, human development has outpaced Nature’s capability to restore equilibrium, so that even if she does whatever is in her power, she cannot undo the damage caused by our civilization. If we want to invert the damage done by us, the answer can and should not be more human interference with natural systems. Since the dawn of civilization, we have managed to cut down almost half of the world’s forests in our futile attempt to ‘tame the wild’.
We have to let Nature take control once again, and do as little as possible to distract her while doing what she wants. Even more so, we have to actively help her achieving her goals.
But what does Nature herself want? To answer this question, we can perform a simple thought experiment: let’s stake out a few hundred hectares of land on each continent and in each climate zone. Now we reduce all human activity (including pollution) to zero, retain current levels of temperatures and precipitation, and fast-forward a few hundred or a few thousand years. In all places with enough rainfall we will see our imaginary plot of land covered in trees and inhabited by a multitude of different species.
Without human intervention and assuming the climate stays stable, Nature will always try to create forests. Forests are the most diverse and most resilient land ecosystems. It is safe to say that creating diverse forests is Nature’s will.
Nature is a self-regulating system, and if we just let Nature do her job, she will sequester all the carbon necessary to restore the balance. Literally all a tree does is sequester carbon and provide animals with vital oxygen in the process. The older a tree is, the more (and the faster!) she stores carbon in her body. Nature has been sequestering carbon for hundreds of millions of years, and it resulted in the vast underground reserves of fossil fuels that we are now depleting. This magnificent example of natural carbon sequestration is now being trampled on by humans who want more merchandise and want to travel more and travel faster. In the process of satisfying alleged “needs” we have successfully converted almost all fossilized carbon back into atmospheric carbon, then realized that it will render the planet uninhabitable — and now we need a way to store it in the soils and forests again.
But where do we start? How can we get out of Nature’s way, and, more importantly, how can we help Nature achieve her goals?
Richard Heinberg’s proposed ”50 million farmers [in the US]” would be a good beginning, but I personally think we shouldn’t stop there. The majority of people will have to adapt the self-sufficient lifestyle of subsistence farming if we want any long-standing chances.
Agriculture is, as previously explored, one of the fundamental parts of the problem — so farming itself has to be overhauled, redefined and transformed, from monocropping few selected varieties to polycropping a broad spectrum of perennials, vines, wild vegetables, and trees. Instead of extracting the absolute maximum quantity of food from the ground, we will have to make the fast recovery of the tree cover and the restoration of biodiversity our top priority. Food security will be ensured automatically along the way. This way we will sequester carbon, repair the natural water cycle, increase species diversity, and get some delicious food to feed ourselves and our community.
There are two alternatives to conventional agriculture that are of utmost importance for us, yet whose meaning we partly have to redefine to exclude potentially harmful tendencies:
Silviculture (from the Latin ‘silva’: wood + culture) is the practice of helping with the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values of whole ecosystems and the humans inhabiting them. If we need more trees, we will have to plant them and take care of them.
Until now, modern silviculture exerts plenty of control and domination over the forest ecosystem, uses heavy machinery, and is often highly influenced by economic factors and motivated by making profits for rich people. As soon as trees reach a desired height, they are cut and sold, without considering the needs of the forest itself. Forests need old trees to maximize their efficiency and resilience, and the older a forest is, the more habitat there is for a diverse mix of other species, and the better and more efficient it gets at sequestering carbon and producing oxygen.
We will have to change the definition and applicability of silviculture to include respect and reverence the wild and untamed, and cooperation with Nature for the benefit of the whole ecosystem (not just a few selected members of one species).
Permaculture is a system of horticultural and social ethics and principles centered around imitating or directly utilizing the patterns, systems and features observed in natural ecosystems. Instead of working against Nature, you try to cooperate with her to reap the greatest possible benefits for the greatest possible number of species. Permaculture means gardening with Nature, learning and understanding how Nature works, what she wants, accepting her, and trying to compromise and work together so that the both of you are happy.
Currently there is a trend towards a kind of organic agri-culture, orderly planting only human crops in neat rows (on fields), in a way that is hardly natural (meaning it cannot be found in Nature like that). Originally, permaculture ethics had a much stronger focus on the wild, and on letting Nature take things in her own hand. We humans should just assist with — not dictate — the direction in which the ecosystem is moving.
We also have to break up the monotony and homogeneity of our current diet. That means examining and revaluating all species that we eat, drop the ones which we can’t grow ourselves, include more wild and local food plants, and explore little-known food plants with promising attributes (like drought resistance).
Food is much more abundant all around us than most people realize. Even in our cities, edible, drought-resistant plants are literally everywhere — and they are, according to new research, even more nutritious than store-bought food. We just have to re-learn how to eat them. Many have a bitter, sour or astringent taste (which is an indicator for vital phytonutrients), and people who are not used to those tastes might dislike them at first. But just as you slowly get used to spicy food when you eat it every day, you will get used to the bitter taste as well. Only then will you discover that there is a whole new spectrum of flavors hidden behind the initial bitterness, a world of distinct and pleasant flavors that slowly surface the more bitter foods you eat.
Many primitive tribes consider bitter food as having the “grown-up taste”, and you can only consider yourself a real adult once you can eat even the most bitter things.
There are well-intentioned efforts underway to identify “resilient foods” and to show that they are indeed not only edible but delicious. But so far, the events that got the most media attention (like the recent “Food Forever Experience NYC” hosted at Google’s New York City offices) have been mostly disappointing, meaningless, and superficial, a random assembly of hipsters and techies, by wealthy city people for wealthy city people, who all feel like they really accomplished something and contributed to “sustainability”. They agree that “things must change”, and they are ready to consume different foods — as long as they themselves don’t have to change anything apart from what they buy.
I ask myself: how do those people think food is grown? A farmer in a straw hat on his knees, ripping out weeds from around the seedlings? Small, diverse farm-gardens with black soil, singing birds, and happy farmers?
Only people who have absolutely no idea about how our civilization’s food supply works can be that delusional and naïve. Reality looks much different, and changing this reality requires much more effort than “foodies” in New York can even imagine.
If they want more diversity, more exotic, resilient, organic and nutritious food on the supermarket shelves, how do they think it will get there? Our current way of food production can only sustain such large populations because it focusses intensively on a handful of crops, which are grown on gigantic scales, sown and harvested by monstrous machines, and regularly doused in toxic chemicals. Only by farming this way can a few farmers supply all our cities.
Planting a wider variety of crops requires much more people working on food production, completely different techniques, less automation and more manual work, and a significant reduction in the scale of farming and the use of agricultural machines. The city people can sit around and wait for “sustainable” food to appear in their stores as long as they want — but as long as they don’t go and help growing it, all this will never happen.
Right now, one average farmer in the technologized and industrialized world feeds between 120 and 170 people (for example 133 people in Germany, and 165 in the US).
Average farm size is 16 hectares in 2010 in the European Union (56 hectares in Germany), and a staggering 180 hectares in the US. This is merely the median size — there are many farms that are considerably bigger than that.
In any human-friendly climate zone, one can easily feed a small family with one or two hectares of land (one hectare is equal to a square of 100m by 100m) on a plant-heavy (but flexible omnivorous) diet obtained from a silvi-permacultural agroforestry system. It would be possible for large numbers of people from the city to resettle on agricultural land to cultivate it themselves. This would require far less fossil fuels and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, as long as permacultural techniques (such as companion planting, composting, biochar, vermicompost, legume intercropping, eating weeds and pests, etc.) are applied.
If we crunch the numbers — which of course does not say much about actual applicability but merely acts as a statistical visualization — we see that, at least in theory, it might as well be possible. There is enough space for a world of self-sufficient permacultural subsistence farmers.
Going with the latest official numbers of how much arable/livable land is available and dividing this number by the human world population, we arrive at a number between 0.7 and 1.5 people per hectare, depending on whether we include forests and shrublands (which are definitely sustainably or even regeneratively habitable, as we see with many primitive tribes) or if we constrain our thought experiment to agricultural land.
This of course is a gross oversimplification and merely serves illustrative purposes. But what it shows is that, at least in theory, there would be enough space for people to live in a regenerative way.
Many might not want move away from the city, because they say they “like it there”. To what extend this preference for the city is actually their unbiased personal opinion — and to what extend it is fabricated by advertising — remains debatable, but maybe those people would soon realize that life in Nature is our only option if we want to survive as a species, and that life in Nature is no more difficult and exhausting than city life once you get used to it.
Ancient and contemporary primitive people surely were not less happy than today’s urban population.
All of us have ancestors that were at one point or another forest dwellers with unique and highly sophisticated modes of subsistence and a rich forest culture. We will need to rediscover how to obtain food from forests and how to stay within its boundaries. After cutting down three quarters of the world’s trees since we first started building civilizations, we’ve come a long way — and there is much to be repaired in terms of physical and spiritual connectedness to our environment and knowing it and all its parts intimately.
As a general rule of thumb, we can look at and learn from the native populations that inhabit(ed) the same land we live on now. How do they feed themselves? What species do they eat, and how do they harvest/hunt and prepare them? How do they build their shelters? What hunting/fishing restrictions do they follow? Which species have a high spiritual significance and why?
In the tropics, this means eating plenty of forest foods like fruit, leafy greens, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, small game, fish, and insects, but also crops that can be planted in small plots of land called swiddens. The crops planted in those gardens include bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, cassava, papaya, pineapple, passionfruit, and literally hundreds of herbs and vegetables.
Those forest gardens are traditionally cleared with the slash-and-char method often employed by primitive, semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer-horticulture communities like the Dayak, the Yanomami, the Zo’é, or the Huaorani — controlled burning of the understory to create charcoal which enrichens the soil as biochar and stores carbon for hundreds of years in it.
Of course, we will have no tropical forest in our backyard to begin with, so planting trees would be the first step. Instead of slash-and-char, we would use fast-growing woods and bamboo to make charcoal, which can be mixed with excrement (see Part IV), added to the soil, and has the same positive effect on soil fertility.
There is plenty of work to be done: land needs to be restored, biodiversity needs to be revived, topsoil needs to be built, and carbon needs to be sequestered (in a natural way!), so implementing silviculture paired with permacultural techniques will be our best shot.
I know that this all seems like we’ve been there before, but this is not, or at least only partly, correct. While our subsistence mode will have to resemble something we’ve done at one point or the other in the distant past, the big difference is what we’ve learned in the meantime. Nobody can predict where ancient techniques paired with new knowledge about the world and our place in it will lead us, but it sure will be better than what we have right now.
I am not a big fan of the whole backward-forward language, and what I propose here is not a “return” to a former way of life — we don’t have to “go back”. Life in preindustrial agricultural societies certainly had its flaws (albeit higher levels of free time), but most of the drudgery came from having to support an elite, their standing army, and the city. What I propose is: don’t support the city. Cities are inherently unsustainable, and there is no realistic future scenario where the majority of humans live in cities in a sustainable fashion.
Fancy architectural drawings of shiny, semi-green urban areas with vertical farms and forests, white rounded buildings and maglev trains are little more than science-fiction aimed at keeping the masses docile through empty promises of a better, brighter, and “sustainable!” tomorrow. Similar drawings were produced throughout the 19th and 20th century (supposedly depicting the year 2000), yet only the fewest innovations presented actually ever materialized. So far, our world has become nothing like those predictions, quite to the contrary.
When we talk about proposed technological solutions (commonly termed “going forwards”), it is of utmost importance to consider that projects on the required scale would take decades to be realized. An example for the sheer timescale of infrastructure projects I recently read about was the last phase of the three-stop extension of New York City’s Second Avenue subway line — a relatively miniscule change — which nonetheless took twelve entire years to be realized.
Instead of throwing all of our manpower, creativity, energy, efforts, and waking hours at large-scale infrastructure and technology projects that will not be finished in time to make a difference anyway, we better give up those things in the first place. What do those projects accomplish? Does building a surge barrier around costal cities magically stall the warming and prevent further sea level rise? Do carbon-sequestering machines automatically inhibit the production of further emissions and pollution?
Quite the contrary, you can be sure if any of those technologies is in sight, it will be an excuse for rich people and their corporations to go on exploiting and destroying — since all you have to do to “save the planet” from that point on is an arms race between carbon emitting and carbon sequestering machines. Technological solutions for a problem largely created by technology is opium for the people. It means that if you just continue with your normal life, go to work, eat out, share your life on social media, wear fashionable clothes, binge-watch Netflix, buy the latest tech gadgets, the solution is just around the corner — created by the same people who get you high on digital opium. You’d have to be one hell of a fool to believe this line of reasoning.
All of what I propose here does not mean “going back” to anything, since there is no precedent for our situation in history. It means drawing upon all our knowledge, abandoning what we don’t need and going straight ahead into the future.
Epidemics and famines are another aspect that scares people from thinking about a simpler life, yet both are (with very few exceptions) almost entirely agricultural phenomena.
Famines are usually caused by agricultural monocropping, which is notoriously susceptible to crop damage. Planting one single crop on an area spanning several hectares is like an open invitation for diseases, fungi, and insect “pests” preying on this particular plant. All it took was one microorganism (potato blight) to kill over a million Irish people heavily relying on this one crop. Were something similar to happen to todays wheat or corn crops, the consequences would be unimaginable.
On the other hand, the higher the number of species that make up your diet, the higher your chances to have enough food even in difficult times. When Richard Lee visited the !Kung-San people in Botswana for his famous study, the Kalahari desert they inhabit was suffering from a severe drought. The neighboring Bantu people, pastoralists (semi-nomadic herders), were dying of starvation, whereas the bushmen hunter-gatherers (whose diet includes over 150 different plants and animals) merely complained that they had to work so much (three hours per day!) to find food.
When talking about epidemics it is noteworthy to remember that most epidemic diseases were a byproduct of the shift to a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle. By not moving around, living under the same roof as domesticated animals (and therefore living in their own and their animals’ excrement without having any idea what basic hygiene is), increasing population, and building ever-larger cities, people created optimal conditions for new diseases to emerge, cross the species barrier, and spread. Cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, tuberculosis, typhus, bubonic plague, and even malaria epidemics were the direct result of the Agricultural Revolution. If it wasn’t for this lifestyle change and its consequences, most of those diseases wouldn’t even have emerged in the first place, and the few diseases present before this shift were local phenomena that never killed more than a handful of people.
At the same time, the variety of foods that made up the diet — and concomitantly the health of the people — declined sharply when humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming. There is a direct correlation between the diversity in your diet and your overall health. The greater the number of foods we consume, the higher the chances that our body gets exactly the nutrients, vitamins, minerals it requires in any given situation. A diverse diet ensures that our immune system works at its best, therefore reducing the fatality of even the deadliest diseases. Those early farmers could have planted a bigger variety, but — if your crop survives until harvest — the surpluses are much larger if you focus on only one single crop.
Early city states encouraged, coerced or forced people to plant grains not because of their nutritional value, but because they are easy to transport and store, have a high calorie-per-hectare ratio, and, most importantly, are the easiest to count and measure — and therefore the easiest to tax.
In the present, it is antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs” who pose the biggest threat to humankind. If they would spread, hundreds of millions could die. Yet without international travel and transportation, and without cities with millions of inhabitants coughing and sneezing at each other in the subway, those superbugs would be a local phenomenon at most. Many of them are byproducts of factory farming (large quantities of antibiotics are added to animal feed because they inhibit mass epidemics, and, coincidentally, promote growth in certain animals) or industrial antibiotic production (waste products of those factories pollute local rivers and constantly expose people in the area to antibiotics, which leads to bacteria having more time to develop resistance).
Without international transport, densely populated cities, factory farming, and mass-produced antibiotics, the chance of a deadly worldwide epidemic would be reduced to a minimum.
For our future it is important to remember that staying healthy by eating diverse, minimizing exposure to pollutants, and leading an active lifestyle reduces the risk of contracting, and, if it comes to the worst, limits the severity of diseases. Further, most modern medicines are based on chemical compounds found in plants or fungi anyway. There are plenty of plants that act as natural antibiotic or anti-inflammatory in every climate, the ability of our body to heal itself and recover from diseases or injuries is grossly underestimated in today’s world, and with general knowledge about medicinal herbs and a little self-care you won’t ever need a doctor. Humans survived and thrived for three million years without healthcare, hospitals and aspirin.
As we figured out before, we cannot rely on doctors, government officials and business executives to get us out of this mess — we will have to do it ourselves. In any given tribe, everybody takes care of the sick, the young and the old, because they know that they are being cared for when they are young, old, or sick. The aboriginal version of social security and healthcare is a functioning tribe that supports each other — this was true even for Neanderthals, and most likely for all earlier humans, too.
All this might sound utterly unrealistic and naïve, but so are the proposed plans of the techies. We won’t get out of this mess following them (whether to Mars, into ‘the cloud’, or into shiny sci-fi techie-wonderland), and if we likewise don’t follow the drastic drop in consumption and radical switch to a low-impact lifestyle proposed here, we might as well place the barrel in our mouth and pull the trigger.
Part IV: How can we do this?
“A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”
— Albert Einstein
In this final chapter I include a small collection of a few key aspects that definitely need to change in order for human society to become regenerative and eventually sustainable, with a short explanation as to why they have to change and a drafted answer to the question how. Of course, this is no universally applicable handbook, since there is no such thing. People and their circumstances are way too different, and therefore there cannot be one concept that fits everybody. But there are certain outlines that will lead you into the right direction. You will have to explore and find out a lot for yourself, try what works for you and your environment, and figure out personal preferences. It is a challenging but rewarding adventure, and you surely will never be bored again.
But be advised: while the simple life in Nature is much better than city life in terms of exposure to pollutants, stress, and other health hazards, it is far from being only idyllic and worry-free — sometimes it demands a certain amount of sacrifice from us. We will have to bleed, sweat and cry at times to overcome obstacles. Our hands will blister, we will cut and bruise ourselves, but we will simultaneously remember how good it feels to be alive. Every time a small but annoying wound (like from a thorn in the foot) heals, we will rejoice with our regained abilities, and every time we will feel like a part of us has been reborn. Every time an injury closes we will regain a bit of trust in ourselves and our body’s healing abilities. We will feel more connected to ourselves, our surroundings, and become more confident with using our body. We will become physically stronger and harder, and we will gain wisdom and knowledge faster than we might imagine. Over time, we will learn a lot, we will master skills, and become more satisfied with ourselves. We will rediscover what it means to be a human and how good it feels to be part of this beautiful, awe-inspiring, gigantic ecosystem we call Planet Earth.
Living a self-sufficient, natural lifestyle is more rewarding than anybody working a regular job in the city can imagine, yet it is not free of occasional frustration. But life is not supposed to be too easy, and it would become boring fast if it was.
There is no greater joy than being able to feed yourself, to simply take a walk through the garden and gather enough food for the day. Feeding only yourself and your immediate community doesn’t usually require much of an effort anyway, no matter where you live (compared to the 8-hour working day). Building your own house, living in it from day to day with your loved ones, and repairing it when necessary will fill you with more pride and joy than any apartment, loft, row house, or mansion in the city ever could — even if it turns out to look “less professional” (which is just a pessimist way of saying “more unique”).
The self-sufficient lifestyle will gift you with more freedom, leisure time, and self-determination than you’d find anywhere in the world of employment.
Lend an ear to those who already went through the first steps, and they will reassure you that it is not only possible, but that it’s wort it.
The question of how exactly to transform this society cannot be answered with certainty. Now that we have a direction, we will have to try and rely on human nature, human instinct, human animality, and human cooperation, love, creativity and problem-solving abilities. We will fail, maybe even repeatedly and with large setbacks, but we will learn from those failures and keep pressing on.
As previously explained, we will have to give up cities. This might be the most difficult part, first because it means stepping out of your comfort zone into the unknown, and second because there is no precedent for this in recent history, so we’ll have to proceed by trial and error. It might sound frightening at first, but as a reassuring motivation we always have to keep in mind what the alternative (business as usual) and its consequences would be.
We will have to sell, give away or abandon most of our material possessions. In preparation, we should get our hands on books or other information on local wild plants, on edible and medicinal herbs, indigenous cultures, primitive skills, organic gardening handbooks, and permacultural techniques appropriate to our climate zone [1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6]. Much of this material is available online for free (if you know where to look) or in libraries, and can be printed out and/or copied for a few bucks.
This step is not mandatory, though, since subsistence farming is not difficult and can be learned with little or no previous knowledge through observing and experimenting a bit. Permaculture is not rocket science.
For the few of us who already have a nice patch of land they’re rewilding, this means frantically saving seeds and distributing them to whoever asks friendly. It means sharing your knowledge and your experience, and informing others about how you got to where you are right now.
For those of us with enough capital at hand, this means acquiring as much land as possible, and distributing it equally to people who lack those financial resources, but are genuinely interested in going back to the land.
Those of us who don’t have enough money to buy land rely on either searching for a place to volunteer, take care of, help out, and become a part of — or simply occupying abandoned or fallow farmland. The latter is illegal by present standards, yes, but the more people do it, the safer it becomes, since the police cannot possibly arrest everybody for it if we do it in large enough numbers. If anything, politicians have to actively support this trend. They can no longer deny that we have to start healing the planet (after all, they signed the Paris Agreement which means that they at least acknowledge the problem and its severity), so supporting people who do just that becomes imperative. Before standing armies and the police force cease to exist (for lack of payment or lack of people), they have to be prevented from doing too much damage to people pledging allegiance to the land. They have to understand that their own future and the future of their children depends on this, too. For the sake of our species’ long-term survival, refusing to obey certain orders can help enormously.
As paradoxical as it sounds, land might as well get cheaper if just enough people start moving to the countryside, as more and more people go from consumer to self-sufficient producer. When large-scale farmers lack consumers to buy up their surplus, part of their land becomes obsolete. When there is too much supply, prices plummet and they are forced to sell parts of their lands. If you personally know a farmer or big land owner, go talk to him and try to negotiate a deal. If you or your friends have grandparents in the countryside, this might be your first choice.
I personally started out volunteering on somebody else’s land, and when I proved myself as diligent and dedicated, I was offered to build my house in the back of the garden, and become a long-term member of the community I still live in today. You will be offered similar choices, if you just try hard enough.
Globally, soils contain more carbon than living plant biomass and the atmosphere together. The enormous size of the global soil organic carbon stock, along with its long turn-over time, makes soils the most important part of the terrestrial carbon cycle at regional and global scales. While the soil carbon content has been steadily declining since the dawn of agriculture, this trend can be reversed. Conventional agriculture leads to topsoil erosion, soil acidification, and the loss of carbon and nitrogen — whereas in permaculture, soil is the most important aspect. If you have healthy, good soil, the plants will grow all by themselves without any trouble. To make up for the loss of topsoil and the concomitant nutritional deficit of the upper layers of soil, there are three easy methods: cover crops, humanure (see below), and biochar.
Cover crops are nitrogen-fixing, fast-growing short plants (like peanut grass) that cover the soil and therefore stabilize it with their roots and prevent runoff. Rain does not directly batter the soil, and sun does not dry it out so fast. In contrast to mulching (which has similar effects), cover crops regenerate themselves and don’t need to be renewed. Agriculture allows only one crop in the field, so the rest of the soil lays bare — the sun bakes the topsoil, all insect life flees deeper underground or dies, UV radiation destroys microorganisms and mycorrhizae in the upmost soil layer, and with every rain, valuable nutrition is washed away.
We can observe again what Nature herself does: bare soil is an injury, and as wounds on our body quickly get covered with scab, Nature covers up her ailments with fast-growing pioneer plants we call “weeds”. In a healthy ecosystem you rarely ever see the earth. It is covered either in thick underbrush, grasses, herbs, or fallen leaves.
Biochar is a topic so comprehensive that whole books were written about it, most notably “The Biochar Solution”. Summarized can be said that biochar is simply charcoal (basically pure carbon) used as a soil additive to increase fertility and store carbon for hundreds, if not thousands of years. This is the easiest way to “sequester” carbon permanently, and everybody can easily do it, without much expertise and knowledge, all around the world, with fast-growing soft woods, bamboo, or any other source of biomass that you find in abundance in your ecosystem.
A special kind of soil worth mentioning when talking about biochar is terra preta (del indio), which contains five times as much carbon as regular rainforest soil (usually notoriously nutrient-poor — over 90 percent of the biomass is stored in plants) and is the only kind of soil that regenerates itself. Contrary to popular opinion, it was not created accidentally through the mindless discarding of charcoal from hearths and fireplaces — those people knew exactly what they were doing. Indigenous farming communities, well aware of the benefits of adding biochar to the soil in an effort to make rainforest soil arable, cleared small patches of land through controlled burning (also known as slash-and-char, swidden agriculture or shifting cultivation) and hence systematically created the best soil ever encountered — and they did all that two thousand years ago, with the most primitive tools, and without advanced technology and scientific analysis.
Forests are going to be the most important thing in our lives. We will have to plant, nurture, water, weed, and care for young saplings as good as we can, and soon enough they will outgrow us, spend us shadow and gift us with fruit and craft materials. The forest will be our home, our supermarket, our movie theater, our community center, our night club, our school, our workplace, our vacation home, and our cemetery.
The more you get to know the forest, and the more you learn about how forests and all its constituent organisms work, the more you will enjoy being a part of it. For beginners, there are many books [1; 2; 3; 4; 5] with excellent explanations backed by latest scientific findings that will help you see trees and other plants for what they really are: living beings, just like us.
Planting trees is one of the most rewarding things I can imagine. Watching them grow fills you with joy and awe as Nature’s pure power unfolds is full potential. Each tree is an individual, and even two trees of the same species are going to be quite different from each other as they slowly mature. They filter air and water, and create a pleasant microclimate beneath their canopy.
Just how vital intact forests are to the ecosystem (e.g. for ensuring rainfall further inland) is currently being explored — and the results so far are staggering. In the past it was understood that the Amazon rainforest came into being because it rains a lot there. Now we know that it rains a lot in the Amazon because there are many trees. The tree cover acts like a conveyor belt for humidity, constantly recycling it up into the atmosphere, so that water is carried further inland and promotes tree growth there.
Some of the most important things to learn come from a field called “indigenous land management”. In his book “Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests”, ecologist Charles M. Peters describes “forest gardens” that look like pristine wilderness to outsiders. While western forestry manages at most four or five species per hectare, in rainforests tended by indigenous people you can easily encounter species densities of 150 different species per hectare — all cared for and regularly used by its inhabitants. Everything from a wide range of forest foods, over wood for construction, bark and vines used as rope, firewood, resins, and medicinal plants, to the palm thatch to roof houses comes from the forest. His conclusion is this:
“There is, truth be known, no ‘wild’ in the tropics, because local communities have been doing forest management for thousands of years. If Westerners want to learn about the conservation and sustainable use of tropical forests, these are the people we need to talk to first.”
If we want to take a serious attempt at something even remotely sustainable, we have to reconsider the way we shit. Feces are somewhat of a taboo in our culture, but there is nothing in the way of changing our attitude. Most people who are reluctant to talk and think about their own waste products are the hyper-civilized humans that deny being part of the animal kingdom the most vehemently. This extreme form of self-denial (there is ample evidence that we are functioning just like any other mammal, and very scarce evidence that we are special and separated from the rest of the fauna) causes a broad variety of issues, from unnecessary shame, over psychological problems, to abnormal and unnatural behavior. The most underrated school of philosophy, Cynicism, teaches that you shouldn’t be ashamed of anything that is natural. Everybody ingests and excretes, so there is absolutely no reason to feel bad for that.
Most people drop their daily loads of organic waste into a water closet — which is arguably the worst possible place for our shit to land. It creates a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, turns into a toxic, smelly stew, and is treated at industrial facilities with highly dangerous chemicals. No other terrestrial mammal intentionally shits only into clean water, and the consequences of them doing so would be disastrous.
Human excrement is actually extremely valuable fertilizer, if made from the right foodstuffs and if treated right. Derrick Jensen went as far as to call our shit “a gift from us to our habitat, [..] a gift of fertile soil, given in response to the nourishment our habitat gives us”, and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. We humans can eat a large variety of species, and the bigger this variety, the better the fertilizer we unintentionally produce. If we eat a good variety of valuable, nutritious semi-wild foods, without chemicals and pollutants, and without mixing it with pharmaceuticals (which might kill soil microbes), it makes a relatively safe load of pure plant nutrients.
Every other animal randomly drops packages of fertilizer wherever they go, and through the digestive process in our bodies, molecules are broken down and the excreted nutrients are, after a short composting process, readily available for plants to take them up. Ecosystems work in cycles, and if we humans chemically contaminate our excrement, we break the cycle. When we extract nutrients from the land, we have to put nutrients back. This is how China kept its soil fertile for millennia.
It is mandatory to recycle our shit as fertilizer. Plants love it, and there is an easy way to create terra preta: once you’ve built a compost toilet of your choice (there are no limitations to your creativity in designing one), you can use powdered charcoal to cover your little heap of future fertilizer with. This eliminates any smell, and the charcoal will readily absorb nutrients, and become “charged” biochar in the process. Once the hole is full (or you change the bucket, depending on your design), let the humanure-charcoal mix decompose somewhere quiet for three to six months — after that it’s ready to use! The plants in your garden will show you how much they like your little present almost immediately.
Nonetheless, you need to be careful not to contract harmful germs in the process of handling your shit during the first few months. Be sure to sterilize any shovels and other tools you used with fire and always wash your hands after working with humanure.
Talking about population is always difficult, because if you point out that there are too many people in this world others automatically assume that you’re a serial killer. Some people have been worried about population growth for centuries, and they have been ridiculed mercilessly when their predictions didn’t come true. Yet any population, bacteria or human, is subject to the same biological laws, so poking fun at Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” is like making fun of the San Andreas Fault for not going off, or of the Yellowstone supervolcano for not erupting, or of the Sun for not bursting into a supernova. We know it will happen eventually, we’re just not sure about the exact date yet.
Our population will plummet one way or the other. It is up to us if we choose the bloody way or the self-determined way. In theory, if every couple worldwide would have one kid, the population would halve within a single generation. This can’t be enforced (as can be seen with China’s “One Child Policy”), and it is highly unlikely that it ever will happen, but if we manage to scare enough people with the consequences of unrestrained population growth, it might just be enough to make a difference.
Hunter-gatherers, just like other wild animals, are subject to and make use of certain natural methods to keep their population on a sustainable level — failing to do so would result in increased food insecurity and possibly even warfare. One such natural factor is food availability, another one is lifestyle habits. In an agricultural society you will have large surpluses of starchy food (carbohydrates), and a lifestyle that allows for many children. As explained before, in a sedentary agricultural community there is no need to carry small children around from one camp to the next (so you can basically have as many as you want), and they can be weaned after only one year (as opposed to 3–4 years among hunter-gatherers) to shorten the period between having children. Carbohydrates are ‘stable calories’, long chains of single sugars, that our body slowly cuts up converts into energy one by one during the day. They signal the human female’s body that now would be a good and safe time for pregnancy, since every day vast amounts of long-range saturating calories make up the agricultural diet.
If we wouldn’t make carbohydrates our one and only staple food (but eat a more diverse and therefore healthy diet with, fore example, more dietary fiber instead), the effect on our hitherto unrestrained population growth would be almost immediate, without anybody having to ingest artificial hormones, starve to death or commit infanticide.
Civilized folks are generally overfed (but undernourished), so simply not eating too much every single meal would already slightly decrease fertility in women — a desirable goal in an utterly overcrowded world. But many people in our society would like to experience the joys of parenthood, and in a (for whatever reason) monogamous society of single households, having your own “personal” kids is the only option (if you don’t want to go through mountains of paperwork for adoption). In a tribal setting, this problem is solved with shared parenthood. This way, everybody is sure to enjoy the company of children and contribute to their education, but nobody becomes too exhausted of being a parent, since there are always others to assist you that can take care of the brat for a few hours if you need to do something important. In many polygamous tribes nobody can be quite sure who the father is anyway, so every man treats the kid like a father would. This is great for the children, too, because they have a lot of people who genuinely care about them. If they have an argument with their father, they can still go to a number of other “fathers” for emotional support. Having kids around can be a true blessing, and with shared parenthood anyone can take part.
Furthermore, indigenous populations worldwide have used hundreds of plants to inhibit pregnancy, since it is a much more comfortable solution not to get pregnant in the first place than to have to deal with an unwanted child .
Neem tree and other natural antifertility agents might not have a 100% success rate, but neither do condoms.
All in all, natural contraceptives, shared parenthood, extended and shared breastfeeding, awareness of the consequences of overpopulation, a low-carb diet, and a natural aboriginal lifestyle will, when combined and applied wisely, almost automatically keep population levels at bay.
Redefining Basic Concepts, Ethics, Morals, and Freedom
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
To create a regenerative society, we will need to redefine and revaluate our measurements of well-being, status, and morality. With our new knowledge, we have to take a hard look at basic concepts thought to be universal, such as luxury, comfort, wealth, success, progress, development, rich, happy, or freedom. What I try to accomplish in the following is not to come up with the ultimate definition of those concepts, but to start a conversation and get you thinking.
‘Comfort’, for example, is a concept largely invented by a deceptive advertising industry for the purpose of selling us more products and make us weak and apathetic in the process. There is no empirical reason to believe sleeping on a $1,000 mattress makes our sleep any better or restorative (other than our blind trust in money).
‘Luxury’ easily turns into an arms race of amassing rare goods for status, and should therefore not be defined by material goods at all. The definition of luxury is better to be limited to non-material concepts, like having the luxury to take a tea break or a swim whenever you want, or the luxury not to work for a whole week if you don’t feel like it.
It all depends on how we define those words, as the following example shows:
“[As for the claim] that the ‘overall material standard of living seems to be increasing,’ the way that works is that the technoindustrial system simply defines the term ‘high standard of living’ to mean the kind of living that the system itself provides, and the system then ‘discovers’ that the standard of living is high and increasing. But to me and to many, many other people a high material standard of living consists not in cars, television sets, computers, or fancy houses, but in open spaces, forests, wild plants and animals, and clear-flowing streams. As measured by that criterion our material standard of living is falling rapidly.”
— Theodore J. Kaczynski, excerpt from letter to Dr. David Skrbina, printed in Technological Slavery (2008)
I guess it is not too far-fetched to say that what our society calls ‘comfort’, ‘ease’, or ‘high standard’ does not automatically equal happiness. We have created a hedonistic global society, united in their pursuit of pleasure in the most obscure fields one can imagine, yet no recreational activity, no job, no sense of ‘duty’ and ‘purpose’ our society tries to cram into our heads seems to be able to truly make us happy on the long run. The reason might be that all of the aforementioned boils down to a wallpaper change of your prison cell — merely superficial and without any depth.
More artificial pleasure in the form of negligible pay raises, virtual achievements, new series and movies, likes, followers, more toys and gadgets, or access to free porn does not make us happier, at least not in the long term. Quite the contrary, one could make the argument that it is a strenuous life that often leads to the individual being happier, because of the profound sense of purpose, and the wisdom one obtains after facing difficult challenges and dealing with them, whether with success or not. You probably know people who have had a very easy life, and you probably also know that those are not the happiest people. If everything comes to you without you even lifting a finger, it is difficult to perceive yourself as having a purpose. Yet if you feel like you have a purpose, you can endure hardship without much trouble. Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
The most difficult concept is freedom. Humans generally don’t like being told what to do, so freedom can mean the freedom to do whatever you want — the opposite of oppression. Yet this also can mean having the freedom to destroy Nature and take other lives as we please. A good start is the rule of thumb “my freedom ends where your freedom begins”, only that this rule is traditionally applied only to humans. If we were to extend it to include nonhuman animals and even plants, we’d be closer to a confining definition of freedom that can’t do too much harm to the ecosystem, and is therefore closer to sustainability. It doesn’t mean that you can’t cut down trees or arrow deer, it just means that you do those things only when you really have to — not for fun and not when your basic needs are already satisfied.
Freedom is often based on choices. Our society defines freedom by how many superficial life choices we can consider. Shall I become a marine biologist, a doctor, a singer or a pilot; should I buy this or that (or one of the hundred other brands of) breakfast cereal; do I have Korean, Italian, Mexican, Tunesian or Chinese food for dinner; which motored vehicle represents best who I am. Yet every choice that goes deeper than that is off limits. Currently we are not allowed to choose to become nomadic and cross nation-state borders as we please, we can’t choose to become a hunter-gatherer and live in the national parks, or choose not to pay taxes. We might choose not to work for the system, but that makes a lot of things much more difficult.
Anyway, the point here is this: having choices seem to be fundamental to any definition of freedom.
But, as Robert Wolff points out in his book Original Wisdom, not having choices may actually be a lot easier.
In the past, people chose to eat whatever they had available on any given day, married one of the girls next door or from the next village, and worked whatever needed to be done.
While this limited number of options initially seems inferior to today’s abundance of choices, the people who live like this are by no means any less happy — quite the contrary. People in modern society often feel overwhelmed by the responsibility that comes with too many choices, they constantly ask themselves if they really have the right job or if they would be happier elsewhere, if their partner is really their soulmate or if there is someone who would love them more out there, and just choosing where to go for dinner can give them a headache. This creates restlessness, and people never stop chasing “happiness”, which is, as they believe, just around the next corner. So they waver from job to job, from relationship to relationship, without ever taking a break and settling in.
Truth is, there can be freedom in limitation, as long as this limitation is self-imposed and doesn’t compromise or well-being too much. Maybe true freedom is not having to choose in the first place, but just going with the flow without being forced to do things you don’t want to do.
The introductory quote to Part II got me thinking a lot. Judging a culture by its woods would immediately show which cultures are degenerative and which are not, and climate breakdown would not be an issue if people worked first and foremost on their forests and not on their material wealth. Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic (quoted above) would, if applied on the global scale, almost immediately solve many pressing environmental problems. The key is to put the biotic community (the ecosystem) first and subordinate human needs. This does not compromise human well-being at all, since a human is just as healthy and happy as his environment, his natural habitat.
What if this was the new standard, judging a culture by the beauty and abundance of its forests? Levelling success by the number of bird species your part of the forest inhibits? How many different species make up your diet?
How profoundly different would this world look like if we just redefined a few key phases and expressions?
Culture and Nature are concepts unique to our Civilization. French anthropologist Philippe Descola writes in his milestone work “Beyond Nature and Culture” that anthropological inquiries among hunter-gatherers have found that no such concepts exist, and that the two are actually intertwined with no detectable distinction. Asking jungle tribes about Nature is like asking a fish about water — it is so omnipresent that there is no need to define and term it. Culture, too, is so obvious that there is little need to single it out and contemplate it. It is just what those people do, their traditions, and their everyday life.
This should be our goal, too: first to make Nature the basis for our culture again, animals and plants the objects of our reverence and worship and the inspirations for our songs and dances, and natural processes the basis of our metaphors and stories; and second to become a part of Nature again, so that the concept itself becomes obsolete.
The two biggest obstacles that we have to overcome is our culture’s view of Nature as a machine, and of us humans as being a separate entity, disconnected from Nature.
The mechanistical view of Nature, a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, is now so commonplace that people mistake it to be a universal truth, and have a hard time imagining how people thought like before. We are so used to explaining body functions with computer terminology that we can’t even think of another way of making them understandable (Sadly, this also implies that it is easier for modern people to understand computers than it is to understand their own bodies).
But of course people weren’t wrong for hundreds of thousand years, utterly failing to understand other animals and plants because they lacked the machine analogy. It is this modern metaphor that is fundamentally flawed!
A machine is a conglomerate of individual parts that can be disintegrated, replaced, modified, and put back together without corrupting the functionality of the machine itself. Living beings don’t behave like that. Take the brain out of a grasshopper and put it back, let’s see if the “machine” will still run.
If you think of Nature as a machine, this automatically leads to a number of problems, like thinking that “natural machines” have neither soul nor feelings, or the seemingly irresistible modern urge to “improve” upon life, if necessary even through genetic engineering. A machine that doesn’t do what you want it to do in the most efficient manner, has to be improved upon. If crops “don’t grow fast enough”, people these days are inclined to apply the same logic.
Yet once you see this world for what it is (and what it was long before we invented machines), you will see that the Earth itself is a giant living, breathing, bleeding, sweating organism buzzing with life: the rivers are its veins, the forests its lungs, and the tides its heartbeat.
Nature, and each of her single constituents, is an organism, not a machine. If a machine has a damaged cog, you can easily replace it. If an organism has a faulty organ, it dies.
On a similar note, it is absolutely ridiculous that we believe that there is any inherent difference between Nature and human beings. Nobody would use this language when talking about other animals, since it obviously makes little sense to claim that earthworms or ducks, for example, are “really close to Nature”. The reason we perceive Nature as a sphere outside of ourselves is because we have lost the connection when we destroyed and enslaved our environment and started replacing it with things we built ourselves. But Nature never left — leave any city alone for a few millennia, and you will find a jungle when you return. Nature is still here, among us. Under the concrete, on our rooftops, and outside of our windows. And where do you even draw the line? Aren’t concrete, roofs and windows also somehow part of Nature, since they were made of materials that make up what we call Nature?
The solution to this confusing oxymoron is simple: accepting that we, too, are animals, we eat, drink, breathe, piss, shit, sweat, cry, scream, laugh, sing, move, communicate, and eventually die, just like all the others. Living a life that is less dissimilar from that of other animals, and subject to the same biological and evolutionary laws, rules, regulations and hazards.
We can continue to use the word “Nature”, but it makes more sense if we use it interchangeable with the words “planet”, “world”, “Earth”, “environment” and “home” — of which we are undoubtedly a part.
We believe that culture is something precious, something worth to preserve, and something that makes us different from other people. Yet all our modern cultures are the brainchild of exploiting, murdering, looting, slave-holding, and raping anthropocentric ancestors who knew close to nothing about their environment and acted in no other interest but their own.
Globalization has boiled down the colorful mix of cultures once found all over the planet into a greyish-brown stew, in which differences are merely superficial and dissolve more and more with every day. All civilized cultures focus on making money. All civilized cultures believe that the world belongs to us humans.
The only noteworthy difference is the one between civilized and primitive cultures, the one that Daniel Quinn called “Takers” and “Leavers”. But once you become a Leaver yourself, living locally and sustainably within your ecosystem, there should be little need to talk or think too much about cultures anyway. It’s a civilized concept that does nothing but divide and agitate us, and renders itself meaningless the moment civilization ceases to exist.
“The world began without man, and it will complete itself without him.”
— Claude Lévi-Strauss
Every culture needs myths to explain the world to its members. We modern humans are very sure that our stories are not myths, yet they are nothing more, since the past is gone for good and no longer present in the present. We might have the most evidence to support our version of myths, and our myths might well be the most comprehensible. But they have become comprehensive to the extend that only a few experts really understand them, each limited to his or her field of study. Average people have to live with simplified versions that usually glorify our role as a species enormously.
Sure, reading about how photosynthesis works or how cells in our body work together in unity to convert glucose and oxygen molecules into carbon dioxide, water, and energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate can be absolutely astonishing, but not for everybody. Most people, as a matter of fact, think that this is quite boring.
But the same fascination that an interested person feels when he or she studies how life works is felt to the exact same degree (and maybe even a bit more, because of a hint of unexplainable magic) by primitive people when they listen to their elders telling stories about the origins or workings of things. There is no qualitative difference in the astonishment that a Yanomami feels when hearing how their god Omama created the forest, the rivers and the animals, and the astonishment of a modern student of the natural sciences who just understood how humans evolved from single-celled organisms. For our day-to-day lives, the details of our myths don’t matter much — as long as they create a stable frame of explanations within which we can live sustainable lives on the long term.
The myths of native populations sometimes have surprisingly much in common with modern scientific findings: you will her about a time when the climate was much different (as it was at several times during the Pleistocene) and about other events that far precede written history (like migrations), about humans, other animals, and even plants sharing common ancestors and being relatives (which we actually are, with a common ancestor — the eukaryotes — just about 2 billion years ago), and a lot of cautionary tales about what happens if you destroy your environment or don’t follow its rules.
The myths of our culture for the past 10,000 years have been predominantly and increasingly anthropocentric, to the point that we have created a religion that worships the human, and only the human: humanism. The belief that we are the most important species and everything around us exists solely for us to take and exploit has been with us since we made the first futile attempts to subjugate and dominate Nature during the Agricultural Revolution. First we believed it was the gods (or one god) who gave us a special place and status in this world, later we started believing that we don’t need the gods anymore, since now it is us who have acquired god-like powers. This way of thinking helped us to justify the increasingly brutal crimes we committed against our fellow animal siblings and plant cousins.
On our new path, we will need new myths to tell our children, myths in which every creature has a place, and that tell the story of everybody, not just us humans. It will be the task of the most creative storytellers to take what we now know of the world, strip it of its anthropocentric arrogance, and weave it into remarkable stories that reinforce a regenerative way of living and an animistic view of Nature. It is possible to retell the scientific history of the world in a way that sounds more like a myth, and less specific, alienated and complicated. It sure is spectacular and awesome enough.
One can say with certainty that we humans are an inherently spiritual species, since no aboriginal culture was never discovered that was not profoundly spiritual in sophisticated ways. The umbrella term for this vastly differing pristine spirituality is ‘animism’ (from the Latin ‘anima’: life, soul), and can be roughly defined by the belief that everything, whether animal, plant, mushroom, rock, mountain, river, lake, or cloud is a person — with thoughts, wishes, dreams, needs, intentions, hopes, fears, and other emotions just like yourself. Everything is animated by a spiritual life force that runs through all beings and things alike. It is the belief in superficial differences and subliminal oneness. Everything has its place in the animist cosmos, everybody a role to play. Different forms of animism easily arise if we just have enough time to marvel at everything that happens around us. We slowly get to know the world around us, contemplate its beauty and abundance, and at times we shudder and feel miniscule and unimportant in the face of the gigantic global ecosystem, the natural world. This feeling is the first step: acknowledging that there is something much bigger, much more powerful, and much more important than us.
The absence of any profound spirituality in today’s youth is one of the most unexplored and unappreciated reasons for the extraordinarily high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, burnout and suicide.
People don’t know, and in fact would vehemently deny, that it is spirituality that they’re looking for. Spirituality is stupid, they say, and nobody but kids and uneducated savages believe in ghosts or spirits anyway. Yet every human has a craving to find a deeper meaning in the world around her. Without it we’re empty husks, dragging ourselves to work and back, hoping that it all ends soon.
Only finding the sacred can fill the void that we try to cram with an endless amount of disposable consumer items.
Where once was a deep belief in our fellow creatures and the forces that keep the world spinning, is now the persistent feeling of loneliness, in a world crammed with strangers. We try to stuff this hole in ourselves with unrestrained consumption, with binge-shopping, binge-drinking, binge-eating and binge-watching, and advertising promises us that we’re only one purchase away from happiness and fulfillment.
We wish there was more to life, we feel alienated and alone, not realizing that our environment — even in the cities — is humming with life, life that buzzes through the air, scurries around our feet, shoots from the ground, and gushes out of the cracks in the pavement. If we follow this trail of life, we’ll find what we were missing all those years. Provided that Nature around you thrives and you have open eyes and an open mind, spirituality will come all by itself. It is difficult not to see the sacred in every living creature and in every wild place once you learn how to observe, imitate, appreciate, and learn from them.
Of course, I don’t see any of this happening, not right now and not in the near future, or at least not on a scale that would really make a difference. And I highly doubt that it will.
But the ideas are there, the solutions within reach. I hope that as climate breakdown continues to wreak havoc and destroy livelihoods, as much beloved species disappear forever from the surface of the planet, more and more people will wake up and realize that the key to sustainability is the reversing of the damage we’ve inflicted upon Nature.
I know very well that seeing what happens to this world can at times overwhelm you. I know the feelings of desperateness and doom that arise with the ecocide unfolding around us. The sadness that overcomes us when we visualize the unbelievable scale of suffering we caused and continue to cause as a culture. The insecurity and fear when thinking about the future of yourself and your loved ones.
Surely, things will change a lot in our lifetimes.
But whereas the eventual extinction of homo sapiens seems more likely today than probably ever since we moved out of Africa, we should never underestimate the healing power of our Great Mother Earth.
On the long term, we can — at the very least — be sure that life on Earth will prevail. We might be powerful, but not powerful enough to block out the sun, let the water vanish, or wipe out every pigeon, every rat, every cockroach, every tardigrade, let alone every bacterium on the surface of the planet.
The pack of cards will be reshuffled, though, regardless of our wants and needs.
We must be concerned with the future, because if we’re not, the chances of us surviving on both the individual and the species level drop drastically. But we must not fear it, for if we think and act wisely, not all is lost. We must always remember that human civilization is not synonymous with humankind.
While our own extinction is definitely a possibility, so far the most alarming studies predicted merely the end of globalized human civilization — not the end of humans themselves — which might be not all that bad after all. It will be the end of cars, airplanes, container ships, combine harvesters, excavators, warships, stealth bombers, bulldozers, tractors, and trucks, of highways, cities, suburbs, supermarkets, factories, shopping malls, airports, open-pit mines, computers, TV’s, solar panels, conveyor belts, robots, drones, smartphones, refrigerators, ATM’s, and of oil, minerals, concrete, plastic, noise, steel, toxic chemicals, cold light, microplastics, and fine dust pollution. From this point of view, it might actually be good if the destructive system, the machine that spun out of control in a matter of centuries, finally croaks and stops. Yes, large cities will be rendered uninhabitable, devoured by tidal waves, battered by storms and hurricanes, but that doesn’t mean its inhabitants await the same fate. It is their choice to abandon the sinking ship — or to sink with it. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We can continue draining every last bit of financial profit from the world to make merchandise, or we can start building a world that our children and grandchildren will thank us for.
Derrick Jensen rightly stated that the only measure by which future generations will judge us is the health of the landbase they inherit. They will not care how much money we made, what job we had, which countries we visited, and what car we drove. They will not be interested in how many rooms our house had, how many channels our TV’s received and how many apps we used on our smartphones. They will not be impressed by the speed of our broadband connections, the megawatts created by our power plants, and the values of our stocks and portfolios.
The only thing they will truly care about will be the state of the world that they will inhabit. Will it be a world devoid of any life, coated in toxic dust and soaked in chemical sludge, with its soil turned upside down, its forests razed, its oceans turned into acidic dead zones, with temperatures soaring, constant famine, and shortage of clean drinking water?
Or will it be a land of plenty, where the forests are so vast and dense that its inhabitants deem it possible that they span the entire world, with clear, cold rivers full of fish, mussels, crabs, shrimp, and water striders, and with seemingly endless flocks of majestic birds in the sky, where fruit trees and delicious leaves are found wherever one goes, where wildlife is abundant in all layers of the canopy, and where the birds, cicadas and crickets sing without rest?
Will the world be green… or black?
It is easy to revert to nihilist thought and sarcasm, lean back, and watch the world burn — and it is more difficult to actually get up and do something. But make sure you’ll never lose yourself in the magnitude of distractions that society offers. Read every article, read every book, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. We must first see and understand the context in which our lives are happening before we can start changing it. And the more you understand the context, the more urgent it becomes that we should not be leaning back and distracting ourselves amidst the unfolding global ecocide.
We can choose to inform and educate ourselves, we can choose if we want to perpetuate the problem or work to eliminate it. We can choose if we want to continue doing what we did for the last ten millennia — or if we try something new. Right now would be a good time we learn from the mistakes of our recent past, our detour into the world of the land-devouring, degenerative, unnatural social organization we call civilization, and contemplate what we can learn from our own species’ deep history and from all the other species around us.
On a biological timescale, we are still a young species, and maybe we have yet to learn from our reckless teenage mistakes as we slowly come of age, get to know our place in this world, and settle in.
Simon Lewis, professor of Global Change Science at the University College London and co-author of the book “The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene”, thinks it very likely that the high atmospheric carbon levels will be balanced out eventually.
“Nonetheless, whether society stops emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide or we finally run out of fossil fuels, the climate impacts will not last a geologically important length of time in the context of Earth’s history. Natural processes will slowly remove the high levels of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, probably in about 100,000 years.”
With or without humans, that is.
Not all is lost if we just start acting now. Time is running out, but we still have about a decade to get our shit together.
I am a far cry from being a Christian, but nonetheless fairly familiar with Christian mythology. When I think about us domesticated humans, the situation we’ve put ourselves into, and the way we ought to go, I am unwittingly reminded of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that Jesus tells to his disciples.
We are that Prodigal Son, who, after spending every last dime of his parents’ fortune in a ‘distant land’ (the city?), finally realizes his mistake and comes back home in deep shame, where his parents wait with open arms and tears in their eyes. Our home, and our figurative parents, are Nature. After all, Nature nurtures us every day and without her we would not live even another minute. The fortune that was presented to us were our fellow animals that we mistreated so carelessly, the myriad plants and fungi that we overlooked and ignored for so long, the clear rivers and the majestic oceans, the dense rainforests, the vast savannah, the open tundra, the endless plains, — and we’ve spent it all.
Now we expect to be rejected, condemned to a life of servitude and redemption for our sins, in the mud among the ‘lowest creatures’ — but Nature will receive us with open arms, and throw a big celebration in our name. Food and drink are going to be abundant, and there will be song and dance.
The older son from the story, who refuses to join the celebration of reunion, represents the few remaining primitive tribes, who have lost almost everything to our insatiable greed. They have stayed at home, all those millennia, while we turned forests into deserts and cornucopias into toxic wastelands. Over time, they will forgive us, if we show real remorse.
We were lost, but now we’re found.
Sources & Further Reading
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States; James C. Scott; Yale University Press (August 2017)
Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin — Properties — Management; Johannes Lehmann (et al.); Springer (January 2004)
Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests; Charles M. Peters; Yale University Press (February 2018)
Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rain Forest; Wade Davis (et al.); Pomegranate (April 1995)
Peak Everything; Richard Heinberg; New Society Publishers (2011)
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia; James C. Scott; Yale University Press (2009)
The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change; Albert Bates; New Society Publishers (2010)
The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman; Davi Kopenawa (et al.); Harvard University Press (2013)
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Peter Wohlleben; Greystone Books (May 2015)
The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene; Simon L. Lewis & Mark Maslin; Yale University Press (June 2018)
The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming; Masanobu Fukuoka; NYRB Classics (June 2009)
The Story of B; Daniel Quinn; Bantam Publishing (December 1996)
What a Plant Knows; Daniel Chamovitz; Scientific American (2012)
Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided; Proceedings of the Royal Society (2012)
Classifying drivers of global forest loss; Science (September 2018)
Climate Resilience and Food Security; iisd (2013)
Defaunation affects carbon storage in tropical forests (2015)
Ending Tropical Deforestation — A Stock-Take of Progress and Challenges; Tropical Forests and Climate Change; World Resources Institute (2018)
Extreme Carbon inequality; Oxfam (December 2015)
Global Warming of 1.5 °C; IPCC Special Report (October 2018)
Global Sustainable Development Report 2019; Transformation: The Economy [Draft]; (August 2018)
Income Inequality and Carbon Emissions in the United States — A State-level Analysis 1997–2012; Ecological Economics (2017)
Mapping tree density at a global scale; Nature; (2015)
Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence; American Journal of Play (2009)
Prehistorically modified soils of central Amazonia — a model for sustainable agriculture in the twenty-first century; Royal Society (2006)
Rate of tree carbon accumulation increases continuously with tree size; Nature (2014)
Slash and Char: An Alternative to Slash and Burn in the Amazon Basin (2004)
The biomass distribution on Earth; PNAS (2017)
The limits of technological solutions to sustainable development; Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy (2003)
The roles and values of wild foods in agricultural systems; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2010)
The Value of Tropical Forest to Local Communities -Complications, Caveats, and Cautions; Conservation Ecology (2002)
Will we ever stop using fossil fuels; MIT CEEPR (2016)
About the author:
Dave is working hard to make a difference and tries something completely new in order to make the world livable once again. His natural habitat helps him not to lapse into agony while watching what happens to this world.
If you share his vision for the future and think a better world is possible, please consider supporting his project on Patreon — every single dollar counts!