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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

What Could Be Better Than Civilization?

editorial by David M. Switzer

As always, my goal is not to necessarily convince you of something in these few pages, but to make you think. If the topic I'm discussing is of interest, I encourage you to check out one or more of the books I recommend. In this case, the topic should interest you -- it concerns the survival of our species.

Although we now know that we're destroying the world, paradoxically our culture believes that its way of doing things is the one right way and nothing could be better. How can this paradox be resolved? The problem, according to our culture, is that people are not perfect. If we were perfect, our way of doing things would work fine. But people aren't perfect, and they're not going to become perfect. What we need is not a plan to try to make people perfect, but a system that works with imperfect people.

When I say "our culture," I'm using the word "culture" in the most general sense. That is, the ninety-something percent of the world that keeps their food under lock and key.

The laws of our culture seem at first glance to be an attempt to eliminate behaviour that someone didn't like. But this system doesn't work -- these laws are always broken. In fact, the people who created the laws knew that they would be broken. Our legal system punishes people for doing things that the lawmakers expected them to do. Doesn't this seem strange? We keep throwing more and more money into the "war on crime," and putting more and more people in jail. If people were perfect our laws would work fine, but people aren't perfect and they're not going to be.

Civilization is a 10 000 year old invention. We have this idea in our culture that it's the ultimate invention -- that nothing could be better. But why should this invention be different from other inventions? Other inventions have been supplanted even though people at the time thought they were the ultimate. For example, the steam engine was supplanted by the gas engine. Our culture has produced a lot of inventions that work, but not a lifestyle.

Civilization is inherently hierarchical -- which works very well for those at the top of the hierarchy, moderately well for those in the middle, and not well at all for those at the bottom. Why don't the people at the bottom abandon civilization? Most of them believe that there's nowhere else to go.

In a geographical sense, we can't get away from civilization. We've conquered the globe. But to abandon civilization, we don't have to go to another place -- we just have to make our living in a different way.

So if civilization is to be abandoned, what do we replace it with? As I suggested in my last editorial, it's time to look again to the Native peoples for help. Our culture has largely forgotten this, but the Natives had (in a very few cases, still have) a system that worked for millions of years. This system is tribalism.

This probably seems bizarre if not inconceivable to you. In our culture, we're taught that tribalism is for barbarians and civilization is for advanced people like us. As our culture expanded around the globe, we eliminated tribalism wherever we could because that wasn't the right way to live. But let's consider what tribalism is, and what it does for people.

A tribe is, as Daniel Quinn says, "a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living." There is a boss, but the boss has no special privileges. The position of boss is just another job, like all the others, that contributes to the success of the tribe. We teach our children how to make things, whereas tribal people teach their children how to make a living in the tribe.

Tribalism is a system that evolved -- a tribe of humans is like a herd of elephants or a hive of bees. The types of laws that they have in tribes are not "you can't do that" but "this is what happens when you do that." These laws evolved over time to serve the needs of the tribe. The laws of one tribe don't necessarily make sense to members of other tribes, but that doesn't matter.

Is it possible for us to abandon civilization? Yes -- in fact, it's been done before. Daniel Quinn argues that the "mysterious lost civilizations" of the Americas are not so mysterious after all. Most historians when they look at these peoples can't imagine that they would abandon civilization -- the one right way to live -- and so they come up with other implausible reasons for their disappearances. The Maya, Olmec, Hohokam, Anasazi, and people of Teotihuacán didn't build their cities and then vanish. "They just took up less conspicuous ways of making a living, either by foraging or by some mixture of foraging and farming." These groups of people experimented with civilization, and eventually rejected it.

What's different between all those cultures and ours? Our culture is the only one that thinks we have the one right way to live. We believe that "civilization must continue at any cost and must not be abandoned under any circumstance." Because we've been taught this since birth it's very difficult for us to imagine that it's not true. But those other cultures tried civilization and found that it didn't work as well as tribalism -- so they went back to tribalism.

But I'm not proposing that we go "back to" anything. I'm not talking about living in caves, going back to nature, or abandoning technology. Most of us probably don't want to become hunter-gatherers, and we don't need to -- the planet couldn't support 6 billion hunter-gatherers anyway.

I'm not proposing ethnic tribalism. This is the type of tribalism that existed for 3 million years -- where members of a tribe were from the same ethnic group. For most of us, this is neither practical nor desirable.

I'm not talking about communes -- a commune is a group of people living together, and may or may not involve working together.

What I'm talking about is an occupational tribe: a group of people working together to earn a living. But not a group where there are a few people at the top making an absurd amount of money and many people at the bottom making barely enough to live on. A group where people get what they need. For example, a circus is often tribal. Larger circuses are probably hierarchical, but smaller ones often consist of a group of equals collaborating in the pursuit of common goals. Tribalism is not something that just existed in the old days, and it's not something that's only for hunter-gatherers. Kids run off to join the circus for the same reason they run off to join a cult -- because there they belong to something.

Many people suspect that to save the planet we need to "give up" things. Moving to tribalism is not about giving up things -- it's about getting more of what you want. What do you want? If you thought about it, I bet you really want security for you and your family, the ability to walk among your neighbours without fear, and the knowledge that you'll never have to face your problems alone. "Whenever anthropologists encounter tribal peoples, they encounter people who show no signs of discontent, who do not complain of being miserable or ill-treated, who are not seething with rage, who are not perpetually struggling with depression, anxiety, and alienation." This is why tribes are successful -- they give people what they want.

I'm not talking about some kind of utopia where everyone is perfect and always happy. Tribes that still exist have existed for thousands of years, and the reason why they're still around is that the members are happy with the way their tribe does things. "The tribal life doesn't turn people into saints; it enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress year after year, generation after generation." Tribalism works because it assumes people are imperfect. It deals with people as they are, not as someone thinks they should be.

What I'm talking about is revolutionary, but it's a different kind of revolution than any our culture has seen before. I'm not talking about overthrowing governments, or anything like that. I'm not talking about destroying civilization -- I'm talking about walking away from it. Of course, we're not going to convince everyone to abandon civilization -- and that's OK. The people who like living in civilization can continue to do so as long as they want. It will eventually wither away.

Unlike civilization, where everything looks the same, tribes will not all be the same. In fact, the underlying axiom of tribalism is this: "There is no one right way for people to live." Diversity is not just good but essential -- the problem right now is that almost everyone is living the same way. And no, I'm not saying that tribalism is the one right way to live -- it's just a way that's worked for 3 million years. If we figure out something better in the future, that's fine.

I'd like to quote at length from Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization:

Humans living in tribes was as ecologically stable as lions living in prides or baboons living in troops. The tribal life wasn't something humans sat down and figured out. It was the gift of natural selection, a proven success -- not perfection but hard to improve on. Hierarchalism, on the other hand, has proven to be not merely imperfect but ultimately catastrophic for the earth and for us. When the plane's going down and someone offers you a parachute, you don't demand to see the warranty.

We all know there are many problems in the world, but it's not because people are inherently bad. It's because of the system that most of us are living in. Tribalism isn't perfect, but it's been successful for 3 million years. Civilization has been around for only 10 000 years and it's going to destroy the planet. If you're happy with your role in civilization, by all means stick with it. But if you're not, it's time to walk away.

Recommended Reading

Daniel Quinn, Ishmael. Bantam/Turner, 1992.

Daniel Quinn, The Story of B. Bantam, 1996.

Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael. Bantam, 1997.

Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization. Harmony, 1999.

David M. Switzer hasn't walked away from civilization yet, but he's working on it. For some time he has known that there was something wrong with the world, but he wasn't sure exactly what to do about it. He stumbled across My Ishmael in a bookstore a couple of years ago, and soon afterwards read the whole series. Dave was very happy to find Daniel Quinn's articulate statement of what's wrong -- and even happier to find his convincing recommendation of what to do about it.

Cover artist Jason Walton, born and raised in British Columbia, Canada, survived a rather blurry number of years as a touring road manager and musician to become a freelance illustrator. Conjuring up visual madness for such companies as TSR, Steve Jackson Games, Arc Light Studios and Wizards of the Coast, Jason resides in Victoria. Vice-President for the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoolgy Club, he is currently heading up the search with local scientists for the Cadborosaurus, the west coast sea serpent.

Last modified: April 5, 2009

Copyright © 2000 David M. Switzer

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