Civilization Shifting: Endnotes
1 – Current IGBP Executive Director Sybil Seitzinger recently criticized policy makers’ failures to act on global change issues, claiming “the UN still doesn’t seem to see that Earth’s restless and powerful social system operates within a complex and intricately linked ecological system.” Global change scientists concerned with salvaging a future of social stability and environmental restoration are now faced with the challenge of understanding the nature of the ossified power structures dominating the global economy as well as emerging breakthroughs in social renovation. Merely practicing traditional, institutionalized science and conservation has not and will not suffice to address global change threats, nor will continuing to appeal to the power structures who benefit from the functioning of BAU economy and politics. Seitzinger’s statements, as well as the appeals of many other scientists who continue to beg for systemic change from within the very system responsible for perpetuating and profiting from social stratification and environmental decimation expose an unnerving naiveté: the nature of the United Nations and similar hierarchical structures is wholly alien to values and practices that recognize the connectivity of the Earth System because these power structures function within the boundaries of culturally-manufactured social isolating forces such as nationalism, ethnic/religious conflict, and classism/racism. Established hierarchical institutions are unlikely to base their policy on the findings of global change science; doing so demands that their imperative shift from centralizing power and wealth among stratified, isolated social classes to widespread, systemic and global cooperation. Within the dominant global system, hierarchies – be they violent, destructive military-industrial-government-media complexes, corporations, NGO’s, or similar organizations – must seek primarily to maintain their power structure regardless of their professed ideals. When a hierarchical organization is formed to support certain ideals the dominating force quickly shifts to maintaining the organization itself.
3 – Some recent and notable failures of mainstream, well-funded environmental organizations include: The IUCN’s inability to match its goals on global biodiversity loss, and the IPCC’s failure to convince global policy makers to agree to even remotely safe targets. Madagascar provides a more specific example of the effects of economic downturn and rapid governmental corruption on wilderness protection. The island hosts an incredible array of unique organisms, with more than 80% of its wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. Following the economic crisis of 2008, political destabilization forced the former president into exile. Immediately afterwards, public services and park management funds disappeared. In the absence of protective efforts, organized gangs supported by foreign traders have plundered the forests. Coup leaders are still profiting from the destruction of the forests; environmental organizations are helpless. Madagascar’s Prime Minister Albert Camille Vital recently (despite a moratorium on export of timber) approved a 16 million dollar shipment of rosewood. Ecological tourism on the island typically amounts to almost a half-billion US dollars distributed to tens of thousands of people, whereas the recent exploitive, illegal pillage of the forest brought in about $US 220 million for just twenty-three individuals. As is typical for collapsing complex societies, the upper stratification of the hierarchy incessantly seeks to bolster its own wealth at the expense of the group; biodiversity and wilderness are ignored. A similar pattern is at play in many other refuges of wilderness. Appealing to conventional environmental organizations has and will likely continue to result in failure. Designing environmental protection efforts for a post Nation-State world will become not only a progressive conservation tool, but a means for community survival in the face of modern environmental challenges such as food and water shortage.
4 – Regarding systems disruption, analyst and author John Robb explains, “a very small number of attacks on the critical hubs of a scale-free network can collapse the entire network. Such a collapse can occasionally happen by accident, when random failure hits a critical node; think of the huge Northeast blackout of 2003, which caused $6.4 billion in damage. …the networks of our global superinfrastructure are tightly “coupled”—so tightly interconnected, that is, that any change in one has a nearly instantaneous effect on the others. Attacking one network is like knocking over the first domino in a series: it leads to cascades of failure through a variety of connected networks, faster than human managers can respond.” This connectivity and dependency between not only nodes in energy or socioeconomics but also within ecological realms presents systems disruption due to global change events as among the greatest challenges to world populations.
6 – While civilizations have collapsed historically and reformed, the vast connectivity of modern industrial civilization as well as the immense, planetary pressures it has wrought on ecosystems and societies dramatically reduces the likelihood of its continuance or resurgence in the near future. Successful civilizations are contingent on resource extraction from fertile and stable foreign areas; 21st Century global change circumstances present neither. Given the incredible diversity and communicative abilities of modern culture, however, potential exists for complex, technologically-adept societies to emerge and outcompete hierarchical civilizations by offering a wholly alternative set of values, lifestyles, techniques, and liberties.
Civilized culture and its irrational mismanagement of human and ecological affairs may end permanently without a return to the most primitive technologies and living conditions if it can be outcompeted by the introduction of decentralized, adaptive, non-hierarchical, restorative societies driven by value systems stemming from the purpose of rapidly adjusting all human populations worldwide to global change threats instead of towards perpetual growth and consumption. While capitalism and present global markets tend to assimilate vast amounts of cultural momentum and support by offering cheap consumer items and promoting materialistic lifestyles, counter-cultural efforts offer global solidarity and the opportunities to create independent lifestyles in support of shared, global ideals. The scars left to the Earth System by the former extractive, destructive culture will not easily nor rapidly fade or be forgotten, while the emerging social movements of the latter culture are more likely to be adopted by the masses.
Civilization in this context refers to the infrastructure, technology, division of labor, and cultural aspects required for the organization of human populations into hierarchical societies such as city-states (historically) or the present day nation-state. Civilization is too often conceptualized based merely on buildings, communication/transportation networks, and technology while the complex cultural aspects, laws, regulations, and social norms required to maintain large, sedentary populations are ignored. These cultural and social forces are required to sustain obedient, pacified populations whose daily lives contribute (by taxation, work, military service, etc) to the needs for their particular social hierarchy to increasingly centralize power and wealth within the upper levels of stratified classes.
Simplified, civilization is a social strategy adopted by human beings at a point when their conscious evolution and symbolic communication systems (language and writing) allowed for groups to take advantage of technology to serve survival necessities of sedentary populations; once basic needs were met civilized societies adopted the processes of centralization of power, surplus generation, extraction of foreign resources, colonization, imperial expansion, and violent group competitions. These facets have been predominate cultural forces of civilized societies, dictating the morality, choices, and lifestyles of many human populations. Virtually all aspects of socialization within civilized cultures are directed not towards the prosperity of denizens, not to the welfare of the natural world or those communities labeled as “other” by contrived religious, race, class, or national identities, but to the maintenance of the hierarchical structure. Just as genes use their human hosts as vessels for their own replication and survival, the memes (the replicating units of behavior and culture) of the hierarchy use their human hosts to propagate even at the expense of very many lives. To permanently outwit and transcend the pitfalls of civilized behavior requires extraordinary vigilance to our own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
7 – Vinay Gupta explains, “In a networked environment, the person who knows what to do next is in charge… in a networked environment, everybody can propose action. Hierarchies using the network experience dissonance at the point where the feed coming off the network proposes a better plan than the feed coming off the hierarchy.”
9 – A true superorganism is distinguished by its ability to regulate its environmental conditions to provide favorable conditions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superorganism
10 – Human microphone
11 – Manifestations and traces of the primal tendencies to adhere to authority figures and large groups are clear in the experimental evidence of ground-breaking psychologists Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram. By planting a majority of intentionally false responders to simple observation tasks in test groups with several unwitting subjects, Asch’s conformity tests on humans indicated most will adhere to the authority of the group even when the group is obviously making incorrect decisions. Asch’s publication, “Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment” concluded that only 25% of test subjects would answer accurately while exposed to the group pressure of a majority of intentionally false-responding participants. Similar group adhesion forces are at play each day of our lives; we unconsciously socialize one another in order to maintain BAU by applying social stigma to behavior and opinions; we blindly assume that the behavior of the majority is appropriate.
More famously, the Milgram experiments illustrate that the majority of humans will continue to cause injury to others if an authority figure insists they do so. Milgram’s experiments tested whether or not participants would continue to administer increasingly severe shocks to another participant if encouraged by an authority figure insisting “the experiment must continue.” Disturbingly, most participants continued delivering what they believed to be powerful, painful shocks to a planted actor who would often audibly voice complaints, health concerns, and painful screams. Both Asch’s and Milgram’s authority experiments were conducted about half a century ago (1951 and 1961, respectively) and yet their insightful and startling results seem to have had only minimal effects on culture. For progress in rapid social transitions the acceptance of the frequent and destructive herd mentality of human social groups must be considered.
12 – Just as evolution unconsciously favors genes that promote survival and prosperity, so has it favored patterns of group and social behavior that maintained the dominant social paradigm of primate group: the hierarchy. It is the memes beneath hierarchy that must be understood and overcome – there is nothing inherently “evil” about the system, but as a memeplex (a system of memes) hierarchy seeks to maintain itself, even at the expense of the units in the system. Like a virus spreading in an oblivious host, the system of ideas has no conscious goal or purpose, yet it co-opts our own human goals, purposes, emotions, and even logic to in order to preserve the memeplex. Instead of actually seeking the professed ideals environmental and social justice organizations espouse, most become subjected to the corruptive forces of the hierarchy.
Author Richard Brodie expounds on the nature of corruption in terms of the study of memetics in his book “Virus of the Mind” explaining, “Corruption of government is rarely a conscious, evil intention on the part of the powerful. When it is –when a powerful leader abuses the trust placed in him and commits illegal acts – we can recognize the problem easily and mete out punishment swiftly when the crime is discovered. It’s more difficult to deal with what we see all over the world today: the gradual infection of the entire power culture with memes that divert the power from the purposes for which it was initially granted…The very instant we set up a bureaucracy, a government, or a big business with extraordinary power over our lives, corruption begins. Little by little, the good intentions originally present in the organization become stifled, choked, or even replaced by an evolving set of memes that have no claim to power other than they are good at spreading.”
13 – For more evidence of societal suicide, see Howard Bloom’s work
14 – Within civilized cultures, “civilization” is generally championed as among the greatest achievements of humankind. On closer inspection this unreflective, unquestioned reinforcement of the greatness of civilization may be no more than another of the unconscious cultural defenses repeated for social cohesion and preservation of the existing system. Social organizational schemes are contingent on strict within-group adhesion, and even the most simplistic of hierarchical societies display cultural facets of personal decoration to tout not only status of their members, but additionally to display the significance of achieving social status within the group. The recent historical dominance of civilized cultures must not be confused with their timeless, universal appropriateness or adaptive qualities. Despite its evident shortcomings, civilization persists by dominance as well as its manipulation of the sociobiological group adhesion forces of the human mind.
In most extant cultures achieving and demonstrating one’s position of high social status is considered of paramount importance. In the disheveled conditions of the 21st century, however, displaying money, wealth, and power may detract from social acceptance in very many instances. As the connections between consumption, greed, extravagance, wealth and global change threats are elucidated, rich and commercially successful entities and individuals have increasingly become targets for attack.
15 – While some contemporary philosophers recognize the inherent instability of civilization most are uncomfortable suggesting alternative social paradigms, preferring reform instead of systemic alteration. In his “The Empathetic Civilization,” Jeremy Rifkin, for instance, attempts to convince his audience that the destructiveness of civilization may be altered if we embraced and extended universal love for one another and all living organisms, creating an “empathetic civilization.” Rifkin invokes the mirror neuron system in humans in an attempt to rationally persuade even the most empirically-minded of a neural and biological basis for strong, empathetic social connectivity between all human beings and even other creatures. Mirror neurons are brain cells that are stimulated in one’s own mind when witnessing another’s actions or responses; they exist in various sensory modalities. In a nursery, human babies will cry in a solidarity response to a wailing neighbor, often creating a dramatic choir of upset infants. Additional mirror neuron systems involved with vision and motor coordination have been discovered in both humans as well as Macaque monkeys.
The great contemporary neuroscientist Dr. VS Ramachandran has extensively investigated mirror neuron systems, referring to them as “the neurons that shaped civilization” for their role in communication, social development, and group adhesion. Ramachandran suspects that mirror neurons were critical in the rapid spread of tool use, language, and human culture and has provided compelling evidence that humans may literally feel and experience the exact sensations of others. Ramachandran demonstrates that the human body typically uses feedback systems to dampen and distinguish sensory input in order to distinguish “self” from “other.”
That humans possess mirror neuron systems does not necessarily dictate the extension of universal empathy throughout all of global culture. History repeatedly demonstrates that regardless of our neural wiring for connectivity repressive, abusive regimes and dictators will commit to self-destructive paths, responding only to force. The mirror neuron system may certainly have the potential to extend empathy beyond national, race, and class boundaries but until these delineations are exposed as false and deleterious to global harmony through cultural means the mirror neuron system is likely to be among the most crucial physiological structures responsible for solidarity within these contrivances.
Applying the mirror neuron systems as a rationalization for universal love and connectivity does not halt global change issues or provide real world solutions to the endemic conflicts and catastrophes we face. Instead it might actually contribute to a sort of scientifically-defensible basis for inaction, or maintenance of BAU. While our intellectual elite continue to advocate acquiescence to the supposed innate powers of human connectivity to feel as one, the risks posed by global catastrophes build.
Just as the mirror neuron system has potential to unite novel human social arrangements, it can be usurped by racial, religious, class, national, and cultural boundaries. While visions of global collective harmony may be attractive and compelling their legitimacy in the 21st century world is spurious. Perhaps unbeknownst to Rifkin, similar mass movements espousing collective love, peace, and generosity have been attempted and failed in confronting and altering existing power structures. Notably the author, philosopher, and futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard launched a campaign in the 1980’s to develop a “Peace Room” in the US White House that would be responsible for seeking out peaceful, real world solutions to global change issues across world cultures, applying and experimenting with progressive social innovations, and building novel support structures to create “a more life-enhancing world.” Hubbard and her “conscious evolution” movement succeeded in achieving recognition as she earned one of the two female nominations (alongside Geraldine Ferraro) for Vice Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in 1984. Despite this impressive and radical attempt at systemic reformation, the “Peace Room” and Hubbard’s aims at universal harmony have not materialized.
If humans are strongly predisposed for universal empathy by the mirror neuron system, one would expect programs such as Hubbard’s conscious evolution movement to have gained more momentum and support. It seems that enculturation into civilized societies overrides the supposed universal mirror neuron responses for empathy described by Ramachandran and Rifkin in very many humans, especially those who seek or maintain positions of power.
It may be that the mirror neuron system is part of the basic neural structure s with the potential to unite human social groups and perhaps even a global human social superorganism, but without cultural alterations to mass perception and consciousness the system may also be manipulated by arbitrary “between group” memes. Memes hijack the brains’ neurological hardware or “aptic structures”: the neural organizations that predispose an organism to be apt to behave in a certain way in certain conditions. While some modern observers of human behavior and global circumstances have claimed that only genetic engineering would be sufficient to override the Pleistocene urges of Homo sapiens sapien, memetics seems to offer much more applicable and rapid solutions.
For human social groups utilizing advanced, modern technologies to prosper through 21st century global change crises, substantial social innovation and advancement is crucial. A sort of meta-consciousness may emerge to guide the self-organization of globally-networked independent, collaborating agents. Historical evidence suggests that shifts in consciousness during periods of social and environmental cataclysm have previously driven rapid, profound, and lasting alterations in socio-cultural behavior.
The extensive work of Dr. Julian Jaynes substantiates a critical element of humankind’s transition into subjective consciousness through the cultural/linguistic invention of the analog “I” as the assumed authority of behavior and volition. Jaynes demonstrates that previous to the development and cultural adoption of the subjective pronoun “I,” human social groups behaved significantly different, basing their volition and action on a previous “bicameral” mentality in which decision, directions, and social adhesion forces emerged through auditory commands derived from the temporal lobe. Jaynes’ investigation of the shifts in mentality of developing societies exposes the role of language, writing, and culture in the maintenance of social groups too large for the leader or elite class to have personal communication with all of its members. For a more detailed introduction to the work of Julian Jaynes and its relevance to conscious evolution and the origins of civilization, see www.julianhaynes.org.
Vail aptly characterizes the inherent problems of hierarchies: “The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups… When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.
In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative.”
Within Vail’s characterization of the anthropological origins of growth there lies a clue to a possible panacea to the seemingly biologically hard-wired and environmentally/culturally reinforced tendency for growth. Just as human psychology is prone to fear the uncertain, often leading groups into following and tolerating corrupt leaders, humankind also evolved emotional connections to one another, to nature (“biophilia”), and to enjoyment of the freedom, leisure, and creative, expressive endeavor. Perhaps reclamation of the leisure and freedom lost in cultural development of industrial civilization may drive the antithesis of oblivious, destructive, goal-oriented = societies in favor of experience-oriented lifestyles. Many cultural movements towards societal restorative efforts already exist; these may out-compete industrial capitalist entities by offering experience and social union opposed to monetary or material wealth.