Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Cimmerian Hypothesis, Part One: Civilization and Barbarism

One of the oddities of the writer’s life is the utter unpredictability of inspiration. There are times when I sit down at the keyboard knowing what I have to write, and plod my way though the day’s allotment of prose in much the same spirit that a gardener turns the earth in the beds of a big garden; there are times when a project sits there grumbling to itself and has to be coaxed or prodded into taking shape on the page; but there are also times when something grabs hold of me, drags me kicking and screaming to the keyboard, and holds me there with a squamous paw clamped on my shoulder until I’ve finished whatever it is that I’ve suddenly found out that I have to write.

Over the last two months, I’ve had that last experience on a considerably larger scale than usual; to be precise, I’ve just completed the first draft of a 70,000-word novel in eight weeks. Those of my readers and correspondents who’ve been wondering why I’ve been slower than usual to respond to them now know the reason. The working title is Moon Path to Innsmouth; it deals, in the sidelong way for which fiction is so well suited, with quite a number of the issues discussed on this blog; I’m pleased to say that I’ve lined up a publisher, and so in due time the novel will be available to delight the rugose hearts of the Great Old Ones and their eldritch minions everywhere.

None of that would be relevant to the theme of the current series of posts on The Archdruid Report, except that getting the thing written required quite a bit of reference to the weird tales of an earlier era—the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, of course, but also those of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, who both contributed mightily to the fictive mythos that took its name from Lovecraft’s squid-faced devil-god Cthulhu. One Howard story leads to another—or at least it does if you spent your impressionable youth stewing your imagination in a bubbling cauldron of classic fantasy fiction, as I did—and that’s how it happened that I ended up revisiting the final lines of “Beyond the Black River,” part of the saga of Conan of Cimmeria, Howard’s iconic hero:

“‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.’”

It’s easy to take that as nothing more than a bit of bluster meant to add color to an adventure story—easy but, I’d suggest, inaccurate. Science fiction has made much of its claim to be a “literature of ideas,” but a strong case can be made that the weird tale as developed by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and their peers has at least as much claim to the same label, and the ideas that feature in a classic weird tale are often a good deal more challenging than those that are the stock in trade of most science fiction: “gee, what happens if I extrapolate this technological trend a little further?” and the like. The authors who published with Weird Tales back in the day, in particular, liked to pose edgy questions about the way that the posturings of our species and its contemporary cultures appeared in the cold light of a cosmos that’s wholly uninterested in our overblown opinion of ourselves.

Thus I think it’s worth giving Conan and his fellow barbarians their due, and treating what we may as well call the Cimmerian hypothesis as a serious proposal about the underlying structure of human history. Let’s start with some basics. What is civilization? What is barbarism? What exactly does it mean to describe one state of human society as natural and another unnatural, and how does that relate to the repeated triumph of barbarism at the end of every civilization?

The word “civilization” has a galaxy of meanings, most of them irrelevant to the present purpose. We can take the original meaning of the word—in late Latin, civilisatio—as a workable starting point; it means “having or establishing settled communities.” A people known to the Romans was civilized if its members lived in civitates, cities or towns. We can generalize this further, and say that a civilization is a form of society in which people live in artificial environments. Is there more to civilization than that? Of course there is, but as I hope to show, most of it unfolds from the distinction just traced out.

A city, after all, is a human environment from which the ordinary workings of nature have been excluded, to as great an extent as the available technology permits. When you go outdoors in a city,  nearly all the things you encounter have been put there by human beings; even the trees are where they are because someone decided to put them there, not by way of the normal processes by which trees reproduce their kind and disperse their seeds. Those natural phenomena that do manage to elbow their way into an urban environment—tropical storms, rats, and the like—are interlopers, and treated as such. The gradient between urban and rural settlements can be measured precisely by what fraction of the things that residents encounter is put there by human action, as compared to the fraction that was put there by ordinary natural processes.

What is barbarism? The root meaning here is a good deal less helpful. The Greek word βαρβαροι, barbaroi, originally meant “people who say ‘bar bar bar’” instead of talking intelligibly in Greek. In Roman times that usage got bent around to mean “people outside the Empire,” and thus in due time to “tribes who are too savage to speak Latin, live in cities, or give up without a fight when we decide to steal their land.” Fast forward a century or two, and that definition morphed uncomfortably into “tribes who are too savage to speak Latin, live in cities, or stay peacefully on their side of the border” —enter Alaric’s Visigoths, Genseric’s Vandals, and the ebullient multiethnic horde that marched westwards under the banners of Attila the Hun.

This is also where Conan enters the picture. In crafting his fictional Hyborian Age, which was vaguely located in time betwen the sinking of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history, Howard borrowed freely from various corners of the past, but the Roman experience was an important ingredient—the story cited above, framed by a struggle between the kingdom of Aquilonia and the wild Pictish tribes beyond the Black River, drew noticeably on Roman Britain, though it also took elements from the Old West and elsewhere. The entire concept of a barbarian hero swaggering his way south into the lands of civilization, which Howard introduced to fantasy fiction (and which has been so freely and ineptly plagiarized since his time), has its roots in the late Roman and post-Roman experience, a time when a great many enterprising warriors did just that, and when some, like Conan, became kings.

What sets barbarian societies apart from civilized ones is precisely that a much smaller fraction of the environment barbarians encounter results from human action. When you go outdoors in Cimmeria—if you’re not outdoors to start with, which you probably are—nearly everything you encounter has been put there by nature. There are no towns of any size, just scattered clusters of dwellings in the midst of a mostly unaltered environment. Where your Aquilonian town dweller who steps outside may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by nature, your Cimmerian who shoulders his battle-ax and goes for a stroll may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by human beings.

What’s more, there’s a difference in what we might usefully call the transparency of human constructions. In Cimmeria, if you do manage to get in out of the weather, the stones and timbers of the hovel where you’ve taken shelter are recognizable lumps of rock and pieces of tree; your hosts smell like the pheromone-laden social primates they are; and when their barbarian generosity inspires them to serve you a feast, they send someone out to shoot a deer, hack it into gobbets, and cook the result in some relatively simple manner that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’re all chewing on parts of a dead animal. Follow Conan’s route down into the cities of Aquilonia, and you’re in a different world, where paint and plaster, soap and perfume, and fancy cookery, among many other things, obscure nature’s contributions to the human world.

So that’s our first set of distinctions. What makes human societies natural or unnatural? It’s all too easy  to sink into a festering swamp of unsubstantiated presuppositions here, since people in every human society think of their own ways of doing things as natural and normal, and everyone else’s ways of doing the same things as unnatural and abnormal. Worse, there’s the pervasive bad habit in industrial Western cultures of lumping all non-Western cultures with relatively simple technologies together as “primitive man”—as though there’s only one of him, sitting there in a feathered war bonnet and a lionskin kilt playing the didgeridoo—in order to flatten out human history into an imaginary straight line of progress that leads from the caves, through us, to the stars.

In point of anthropological fact, the notion of “primitive man” as an allegedly unspoiled child of nature is pure hokum, and generally racist hokum at that. “Primitive” cultures—that is to say, human societies that rely on relatively simple technological suites—differ from one another just as dramatically as they differ from modern Western industrial societies; nor do simpler technological suites correlate with simpler cultural forms. Traditional Australian aboriginal societies, which have extremely simple material technologies, are considered by many anthropologists to have among the most intricate cultures known anywhere, embracing stunningly elaborate systems of knowledge in which cosmology, myth, environmental knowledge, social custom, and scores of other fields normally kept separate in our society are woven together into dizzyingly complex tapestries of knowledge.

What’s more, those tapestries of knowledge have changed and evolved over time. The hokum that underlies that label “primitive man” presupposes, among other things, that societies that use relatively simple technological suites have all been stuck in some kind of time warp since the Neolithic—think of the common habit of speech that claims that hunter-gatherer tribes are “still in the Stone Age” and so forth. Back of that habit of speech is the industrial world’s irrational conviction that all human history is an inevitable march of progress that leads straight to our kind of society, technology, and so forth. That other human societies might evolve in different directions and find their own wholly valid ways of making a home in the universe is anathema to most people in the industrial world these days—even though all the evidence suggests that this way of looking at the history of human culture makes far more sense of the data than does the fantasy of inevitable linear progress toward us.

Thus traditional tribal societies are no more natural than civilizations are, in one important sense of the word “natural;” that is, tribal societies are as complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent as civilizations are. There is, however, one kind of human society that doesn’t share these characteristics—a kind of society that tends to be intellectually and culturally as well as technologically simpler than most, and that recurs in astonishingly similar forms around the world and across time. We’ve talked about it at quite some length in this blog; it’s the distinctive dark age society that emerges in the ruins of every fallen civilization after the barbarian war leaders settle down to become petty kings, the survivors of the civilization’s once-vast population get to work eking out a bare subsistence from the depleted topsoil, and most of the heritage of the wrecked past goes into history’s dumpster.

If there’s such a thing as a natural human society, the basic dark age society is probably it, since it emerges when the complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent cultures of the former civilization and its hostile neighbors have both imploded, and the survivors of the collapse have to put something together in a hurry with nothing but raw human relationships and the constraints of the natural world to guide them. Of course once things settle down the new society begins moving off in its own complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent direction; the dark age societies of post-Mycenean Greece, post-Roman Britain, post-Heian Japan, and their many equivalents have massive similarities, but the new societies that emerged from those cauldrons of cultural rebirth had much less in common with one another than their forbears did.

In Howard’s fictive history, the era of Conan came well before the collapse of Hyborian civilization; he was not himself a dark age warlord, though he doubtless would have done well in that setting. The Pictish tribes whose activities on the Aquilonian frontier inspired the quotation cited earlier in this post weren’t a dark age society, either, though if they’d actually existed, they’d have been well along the arc of transformation that turns the hostile neighbors of a declining civilization into the breeding ground of the warbands that show up on cue to finish things off. The Picts of Howard’s tale, though, were certainly barbarians—that is, they didn’t speak Aquilonian, live in cities, or stay peaceably on their side of the Black River—and they were still around long after the Hyborian civilizations were gone.

That’s one of the details Howard borrowed from history. By and large, human societies that don’t have urban centers tend to last much longer than those that do. In particular, human societies that don’t have urban centers don’t tend to go through the distinctive cycle of decline and fall ending in a dark age that urbanized societies undergo so predictably. There are plenty of factors that might plausibly drive this difference, many of which have been discussed here and elsewhere, but I’ve come to suspect something subtler may be at work here as well. As we’ve seen, a core difference between civilizations and other human societies is that people in civilizations tend to cut themselves off from the immediate experience of nature nature to a much greater extent than the uncivilized do. Does this help explain why civilizations crash and burn so reliably, leaving the barbarians to play drinking games with mead while sitting unsteadily on the smoldering ruins?

As it happens, I think it does.

As we’ve discussed at length in the last three weekly posts here, human intelligence is not the sort of protean, world-transforming superpower with limitless potential it’s been labeled by the more overenthusiastic partisans of human exceptionalism. Rather, it’s an interesting capacity possessed by one species of social primates, and quite possibly shared by some other animal species as well. Like every other biological capacity, it evolved through a process of adaptation to the environment—not, please note, to some abstract concept of the environment, but to the specific stimuli and responses that a social primate gets from the African savanna and its inhabitants, including but not limited to other social primates of the same species. It’s indicative that when our species originally spread out of Africa, it seems to have settled first in those parts of the Old World that had roughly savanna-like ecosystems, and only later worked out the bugs of living in such radically different environments as boreal forests, tropical jungles, and the like.

The interplay between the human brain and the natural environment is considerably more significant than has often been realized. For the last forty years or so, a scholarly discipline called ecopsychology has explored some of the ways that interactions with nature shape the human mind. More recently, in response to the frantic attempts of American parents to isolate their children from a galaxy of largely imaginary risks, psychologists have begun to talk about “nature deficit disorder,” the set of emotional and intellectual dysfunctions that show up reliably in children who have been deprived of the normal human experience of growing up in intimate contact with the natural world.

All of this should have been obvious from first principles. Studies of human and animal behavior alike have shown repeatedly that psychological health depends on receiving certain highly specific stimuli at certain stages in the maturation process. The famous experiments by Henry Harlow, who showed that monkeys raised  with a mother-substitute wrapped in terrycloth grew up more or less normal, while those raised with a bare metal mother-substitute turned out psychotic even when all their other needs were met, are among the more famous of these, but there have been many more, and many of them can be shown to affect human capacities in direct and demonstrable ways. Children learn language, for example, only if they’re exposed to speech during a certain age window; lacking the right stimulus at the right time, the capacity to use language shuts down and apparently can’t be restarted again.

In this latter example, exposure to speech is what’s known as a triggering stimulus—something from outside the organism that kickstarts a process that’s already hardwired into the organism, but will not get under way until and unless the trigger appears. There are other kinds of stimuli that play different roles in human and animal development. The maturation of the human mind, in fact, might best be seen as a process in which inputs from the environment play a galaxy of roles, some of them of critical importance. What happens when the natural inputs that were around when human intelligence evolved get shut out of the experiences of maturing humans, and replaced by a very different set of inputs put there by human beings? We’ll discuss that next week, in the second part of this post.


AA said...

Taken from the short story, "Beyond the Black River," surely? I drink to the shade of the dog, who fought more fiercely than many a man. After the era of Conan the Great, the Hyborian kingdoms disappeared, replaced by the Pictish and Turanian empires, snarling at each other.

AA said...

Apologies, Archdruid, for a comment on the heels of my first one but the epitome of urban decadence must surely have been the Hyborian city of Shadizar ("city of wickedness"), where every kind of perversity flourished.

Howard Skillington said...

I would like to assure you that I have never once suspected that one of your posts was the product of "plodding your way through the day’s allotment of prose." Indeed, I have often been struck by how consistently engaged you seem to be by each week's subject.
At the intuitive level your hypothesis this week rings powerfully true. I look forward to next week's inspired installment.

Cathy McGuire said...

Wonderful post! As someone who's still trying to learn from my mini-ecosystem how best to grow food and raise animals, I can attest that it's the actual, not the theoretical, that affects the result! And I've been watching a fascinating series on the old Silk Road, done by Japanese and Chinese film makers (the overdubs in Korean are bothersome but not insuperable) - and seeing some of the towns (some quite hard to distinguish from the natural surroundings) that still exist today convinces me that those are the humans who will survive when our cities falls apart! This one THE SILK ROAD is the second of the series - you can seen an ancient wooden irrigation wheel and a goat-tube raft in the first 6 minutes...

Also- don't forget, readers, that the links to the submissions for the current short story contest can be found here:

And finally, a quote from Ugo Bardi that I think really gets at the skewed POV of modern civilization: "In the end, what is the solution to the 'food supply problem'? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: 'in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation.'"

valekeeperx said...


Great stuff. Your ending discussion of the interplay between the human brain and the natural environment brings to mind the ideas of Jean Liedloff, as she outlined in The Continuum Concept.

Looking forward to the next installment (as well as Moon Path).

Best regards to all.

Eric Backos said...

Dear Mr. Greer, Your Grace, &c.
Perhaps it might please you to post our announcement in your forum.
Many thanks for your consideration.
The Members of Ruinmen’s Local 440

The first joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Chapter Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 6:30 PM on Thursday, July 23, 2015 at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, 9434 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio, 44060. Splendorem Lucis Viridis! The theme of the evening’s discussion is, “the many paths forward.” The public is welcome. Tables for Failed Scholars.

PS – Is the motto OK? We think it means, “Shining the Green Light.”

Cathy McGuire said...

P.S. - Congrats on finishing a draft of a novel so quick!! I concur with your description of how writing is at various times... wonderful when something grabs you, but you gotta do it regularly whether it does or doesn't - a lot like spading the soil.

rabtter said...

I have a hunch some type of electronic media will get a mention next week.

Fabian said...

While we are on the subject of barbarism and quotes from Robert Howard, here is a great question he once asked:

“When a nation forgets her skill in war, when her religion becomes a mockery, when the whole nation becomes a nation of money-grabbers, then the wild tribes, the barbarians drive in... Who will our invaders be? From whence will they come?”

In the case of Europe, I think the answer is pretty obvious at this point

Pinku-Sensei said...

Since you appear to be dabbling in the Cthulhu Mythos, you might find it amusing to learn that the features on Pluto are being informally named after underworld beings, including Cthulhu. Let's see if they survive the vetting of the International Astronomical Union, which demoted Pluto to the status of dwarf planet a decade ago . I hope they are better remembered than the movement added to Holst's "The Planets" earlier this century for Pluto. Holst himself couldn't be bothered during the last years of his life, as Pluto had no astrological significance then.

As for science fiction being a literature of ideas, Robert Heinlein himself said are really only three premises in science fiction: what if, if only, and if this goes on. A problem might arise What if humans are like Moties, fated to crash their civilizations over and over again. My experience this past decade has made me fear that the answer is yes. Now the important questions are so what and what do I do now. That's why I am keeping a blog and reading yours.

Fabian said...

As a follow on to my previous post, I am currently reading “The Great Arab Conquests”, volume one of Glubb Pasha’s monumental history of the Arabic and Islamic peoples. “The Great Arab Conquests” provides a rather fascinating example of a barbarian people who conquered not one but two decadent civilizations and founded a great civilization of their own.

dfr2010 said...

Congratulations on the productive burst of inspiration. This series of posts sounds quite fascinating to this 42 year old who still has the jacket with her Girl Scout camp patches on it.

Isaac Hill said...

Congratulations on that book! It surely is wonderful when inspiration takes you, more than makes up for all the false starts and dead horse beatings in between bouts. I admire how disciplined you are as a writer, able to post one of these every week while pumping out an absurd amount of books, without sacrificing content. I am more of a song writer than prose, but it's a similar thing. I often go too long without warming up the songwriting muscles and get rusty. I imagine keeping the blog helps keep the juices flowing.

In regards to the rest of this weeks offering, I really like how you defined natural and unnatural, based on how much of the surrounding environment is there by natural processes. I have often came to the thought that all human processes are natural processes though, but I see how the distinction is useful. I am extremely grateful that I was allowed to run through the woods to my heart's content when I was a child, it allowed biophilia to develop which makes understanding the non-human world a lot easier than my urban-raised friends.

pygmycory said...

Looks like I guessed correctly which quote you would use this week.

If you were to define civilization as literate societies living in settled communities, and then ask for how long such societies have existed compared to how long modern H. sapiens has existed you still come to the same conclusion: civilization isn't natural to humanity. Or at least, not as common as other forms of social organization...

The results would be a bit different if you went by population, but that's just because civilizations tend to have more population in a given area, reaching extremes with modern industrial megacities.

WW said...

I'd venture that when all the inputs for deciding how smart we are are human values, we come up with various ways of determining that we're all pretty smart. It's not a sitution where you have to confront a lot of chaotic, undefined varibles. Sailors wear lifejackets and white water kayakers wear helmets because the nature of the activity tends to teach you that what you bring to it isn't dispositive, and precautions are in order. In a way, if you'll indulge me for a moment, "human reasoning" has quite a bit in common with a portion of the late Col. Jeff Cooper's formulation of rifle shooting; "It's not what you did once that's important, it's what you can do on demand."

btidwell said...

This week's blog brought to mind an anecdote from my childhood. One afternoon the lady who lived next door, who's breathtaking lack of basic intelligence was a continual source of merriment in my family, was complaining to my mother about all of the leaves needing raking in her suburban yard. She grumpily wondered why the developer had planted so many trees. Since we had moved in before her house was even built, my mother could speak with authority and explained that the developer hadn't planted them. They were there when the house was built. Then, eyes wide with shock, the neighbor said, "He didn't plant them? You mean those are just *wild* trees?!" She had a tree removal service there within a week.

Betsy Megalos said...

Kudos on your new book! I was wondering how you might spend time without "age of Limits", very productively it sounds !

k-dog said...

Indeed the word “civilization” does have a galaxy of meanings. I have a private interpretation. In my dreams civilization embodies truth, balance, and order. Kindness and justice, fair dealing with honesty and truthfulness in the sacraments of our social interplays is it's measure. In my dreams this is the fabric of civilization. In the new dark age to come if a new Conan shares any of my dreams perhaps civilization will not have quite faded away. Perhaps this new dark age to come will not be so dark if this Conan comes to be. Perhaps by the standard of my dreams our present age has fallen away from civilization's label more than it thinks. Civilization is often defined by it's monuments and cultural artifacts and its technology; but the real measure of civilization is far more subtle. It's measure is how well men treat men.

Peter VE said...

I haven't much to add besides my weekly admiration for your writing. I live right behind the Ward mansion, and 2 blocks from where Lovecraft lived for about 7 years. The border between "civilization" and Cthulhu is a little thinner hereabouts. I tend my garden, and try to teach my daughter and her boyfriend the pleasures of raising and eating your own food.

Ray Wharton said...

Very interesting hypothesis, and perhaps worth meditating on for the seed bearers of today choosing what seed stock to put away from tomorrow.

The rise and fall of civilizations is that law of balance in act is it not? Oscillation pushed beyond a certain point reached turbulence, and boon and bust cycles becomes spiral outward until a complete failure of what counted as status quo results. Cities, and the conditions, customs, and technologies that allow cities to overreach into overshoot push the good times and the lean times common to ecotechnic societies like the Australian Aborigines, or the !Kung to the extremes of collapse and radical cultural discontinuity like the histories of Eurasia and Mesoamerica are stocked with.

I wonder if the limits imposed on the peoples of Australia and Africa by their harsh climates helps prevent the city form from being able to over whelm the nature dwelling forms. Along that line I consider the Inuit who live in a climate more vividly different from their hominid ancestors, yet also don't seem to have formed settlements large enough for a young one to get trapped by, also I suspect for reasons related to the environments carrying capacity. I wonder if a harsh Earth with little capacity to support large populations would select for cultures less prone to civilize, can't think of a way to check it, but it would make a certain degree of sense. Also this brings to mind cultures who favored especially harsh climates to avoid conflict, like the Hopi have been reported to have done.

Maybe the seeds of civilization are not what I would want to leave? Rule of dissensus, but I think this line of meditation may influence which seeds I will privilege in the caches I tend... or maybe not, this line of thinking is still fairly new to me. Then again it might clarify the line of thinking I have been tracing out for a while, of privileging those ways of altering the environment that work intimately and honestly with other living things in symbiosis, like hedges and arbosculpture. Recall the discussion of the comparative senility of the car driving American Imperialists compared to the horse obsessed British; I wonder if the biophobia didn't make the entire situation much worse than it had to be. Even a human placed tree still is alive and will put in its two seeds where a human made statue just leads down the hall of mirrors of its creators mind. What of writing, history? Well the ol' German called for a reevaluation of all values, I think this path will be touching on a lot of them at any rate.

John Michael Greer said...

AA, the dog was certainly worth Conan's tribute of seven Pictish heads. As for Shadizar, wickedness and perversity aren't actually that important when it comes to the kind of decadence that brings down civilizations; the sort of induced senility that leads elites to keep doing the same thing no matter how catastrophically and consistently it's failed -- are you listening, Frau Merkel? -- is normally far more important.

Howard, thank you. I don't think I've ever had to plod through a post; there have been some books that took that kind of trudging on the first draft, though.

Cathy, despite my occasional disagreements with Ugo, I've got to say that by and large, he's among the best in the doomosphere -- and that comment is a good demonstration of the reason why.

Valekeeperx, I'll have to check her book out one of these days.

Eric, funny! Delighted to hear it, and I hope it's a lively evening. The motto actually works out to "splendor of the green light;" if you want "shining," as in the participle of the verb "to shine," it would be "Effulgens Luce Viridi," literally "shining with the green light;"if you want the sense of "making visible," which doesn't really fit the Latin for "to shine," you might want "Ostendens Lucem Viridem," literally "displaying the green light."

Cathy, my head's still spinning after the last eight weeks. I've never written anything on that scale anything like that fast.

Rabtter, perhaps in passing, but you'll note that civilizations without electronic media fall too...

Fabian, true enough. Here in the US, I think the candidates are going to have to draw straws or something to see who gets to go first!

Pinku-sensei, you know, that's almost eerie. It only occurred to me after I finished the draft of Moon Path to Innsmouth that I wrote it just as the New Horizons space probe approached the planet Lovecraft called Yuggoth, which has a significant role in his mythos. I wonder what the Mi-Go think of the bright little decoration we've just put in their sky... ;-)

Fabian, the interesting thing is that the Arabs weren't barbarians when they surged out of Arabia -- they had cities, a literate culture, and the like. One of the ways that the usual rhythm of rise and fall can skip a beat is when a rising civilization swallows the territory of a falling one.

dfr2010, thank you!

Isaac, I had the same experience as a child. I pity the poor children of today's helicopter moms, who never get the chance to encounter nature directly without a parent or a planned activity in the way.

Pygmycory, yes, you could get the same result that way, too. ;-)

WW, granted, but does our opinion of our intelligence actually have that much to do with the reality of it? A lot of very dumb people think they're very smart, while most smart people know how much they don't know.

Rita Narayanan said...

one of the strangest experiences is listening to philosophical adepts actually tell youngsters (here in India) that they will probably take holidays in *space station resorts*......Carl Jung spoke about the Eastern man being grounded but now I seem to think that westerners are more grounded than the educated Indian elite.

Regards :)

Betsy Megalos said...

Interesting topic this week. Civilization/ barbarian/ linear thinking/ technology.
Reminds me of a debate/discussion I just had with an old friend . He - a child of progress= opened the debate to think of travel without wheels.. he was thinking of advanced civilization/ Future technology--of a large system of magnetized floating trains and self repairing robots that would zoom us across our country.
Suppressing a grin.. I suggested the Travois. The Great plains Horse and a pair of pine poles transportation.
I wondered what we lose in our thinking and nature connectedness when we see more technology as better.
Nice to have this place to discuss the long decent- and ponder future scenarios by examining the past.

John Michael Greer said...

Btidwell, I hope one of the trees dropped a limb straight through her roof.

Betsy, thank you. It was quite a surprise to me.

K-dog, fair enough. What will you do to help see to it that the Conans of the age to come share those ideals?

Peter, I get the sense that the boundary between civilization and Cthulhu is getting very thin all over these days. Our barbarians may just have tentacles...

Ray, the impact of ecological limits is certainly an important factor. Whether the Earth's arid and difficult future will make civilization a good deal less common is an interesting question, which we ourselves won't be able to answer but our descendants will.

Rita, intellectuals in the West are generally very clueless about Asian mysticism and philosophy. Apparently intellectuals in the East may be just as clueless about the limits to our technology...

Repent said...

Somehow putting the likes of Genghis Khan on a pedestal, doesn't seem rational. Is Barbarism a preferred choice? (I can't wait for part 2 of your essay). Genghis Khan once said:

"The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters"

That said I'd prefer to live like an astronaut in a wholly human created world in a city. The brief times that I venture out to the beach, or on a wilderness hiking trail, or camping in some more remote areas, these are the limits to which I've known nature. It's clear to me that I've lived almost my entire life like an astronaut in artificial environments, going from the house to the car, to the factory, to the car, to the house for years and years, and none of it is natural. Sometimes I envy those who've lived closer to nature.

My most favorite quote from Neale Donald Walsh is that 'We are all one, what you do to another you do to yourself'. This is a measure of civilization. We could dump all the gizmo's in the dumpster, but if we all adapted this version of the golden rule, we would still be civilized. I don't relish the thought of the coming dark age, clearly other choices are still available without all the do-dah's of modern life. There are many other shades of grey between civilization and barbarism, let's make the happy choice!

Clay Dennis said...

JMG, The direction your post is taking reminds me of my favorite Edward Abbey Quote:

" The real work of men was hunting meat. The invention of agriculture was a giant step in the wrong direction, leading to serfdom, cities and empire. From a race of hunters,artists, warriors and tamers of horses we degraded ourselves to what we are now: clerks, functionaries, laboreres, entertainers , processors of information."

Caryn said...

Many congratulations on finishing the new book! Yes, that pace and time sounds head-spinning and exhausting. Well done! A virtual clink of glasses or beer steins to you.

I tend to think, like k-dog, that 'civilization' is the software, so to speak, our advancements in civil rights, racial, religious and gender equality, tolerance and acceptance of those different from ourselves, systems in place for the care for our sick and elderly and the most vulnerable amongst us, education and a flourishing of the arts and explorations and respectful and healthy treatment of animals and our world. I can see where this is inaccurate. Where it actually doesn't jibe with real life self-proclaimed 'civilizations' and actually does describe several so-called 'barbarian' tribes. As k-dog poetically said, it's a dream of 'civilization'. I also see where your working description is more universally understood and accepted. Looking forward to where we will be going with this next week.

Btidwell: I laughed out loud at that! Ewwww! 'Wild' trees!? Ironically, in Hong Kong, a true urban jungle if ever there was one, One often sees sidewalks and roadways and even walls of buildings making a "U" shape or jig-jog of steps up or down to accommodate some ancient banyan, palm or other tree. A few weeks ago I actually got beaned on the head from a falling mango on one of the sidewalk trees. Quite heavy, it hurt, but also quite wonderful to have delicious mangos falling from the skies! In other ways they don't seem to mind completely mowing down nature or reclaiming 1/2 of the ocean to build build build! but the hustling, bustling city steps carefully out of the way for those old 'wild' trees. They must be good feng shui or something.

Mister Roboto said...

What happens when the natural inputs that were around when human intelligence evolved get shut out of the experiences of maturing humans, and replaced by a very different set of inputs put there by human beings?

I'm guessing it's not a pretty picture at all.

Pinku-sensei: This has always been Pluto's theme for me.

Hawkcreek said...

I've often thought that civilization was as much about what we know, rather than what we have, or how many acres of woods we ruin with highways and high rise buildings.

Some of my friends think I am a bit un-civilized because I poop in a bucket of sawdust, and don't mind the chore of having to mix that into my compost pile. I think I am civilized because of my ability to read, and contribute in some small way to groups like this.
All in your point of view, I suppose.

shhh said...

Interesting this. Sadly I can't read through the comments right now but would like to share an observation posing as a supposition (or vice versa)...I grew up in the mountains of the Southwest and one of my childhood joys was laying out and pondering the unimaginable distances of the night sky. Having a rocket scientist/nuclear physicist father impregnated me with certain tendencies of thought which your writing is doing some small measure to rectify. But I digress. What I want to say is I was struck quite viscerally when I moved to the city and could no longer see any constellation except the big dipper, if that. It still horrifies me that the city is wholly bereft of the naked, raw majesty every child must suckle to learn humility - and I strongly suspect compassionate curiosity. All the urban born souls have to gaze upon is a ghost of the moon creeping like an harassed cat across the night sky. I have wondered if this is one of the many reasons city folk are so downright nuts, rude, psychotic and drunk with a love of meaningless baubles.(not that mountain folk are immune to these experiences...)

btw, discovered the well of galabes the other day and really appreciate what you're doing there. very well timed for me - a fact a former incarnation would refer to as coincidence but I suspect has a more or less discernible cause of action. cheers and regards.

onething said...

Civilizations crash and burn and are short lived because they are out of balance. They always want more and are on a path of accumulation. This tends to require division of labor and class stratification, slavery and the like. They are on the take.

Jo said...

I see a common thread linking the last few posts with this one - the issue of human control over the environment. Both the dream of the machine, and last week's theme of modern, Westernised humans seeing nature as merely a backdrop to our endeavours - it is all about getting as far away from Nature as possible. Why? My thoughts are that if we feel we can control nature, then we are gods. We are SPECIAL.

Hunter gatherer communities and subsistence farmers (and barbarians) know how insignificant they are in the scheme of things. They are inextricably entwined with every other living thing. Not from some philosophical ideal, but because they depend on doing deals with nature to survive from day to day. Nature is God, and human beings are part of the environment, along with turtles and trees and bean seeds.

I believe that modern humans actually cannot intellectually grasp that we are part of the environment. We are no more or less than the turtle or the bean seed. I come from a background of evangelical Christianity, which stresses that we humans are lords of creation, with dominion over all the earth. As an adult, when I left the church, and started the struggle to find a new path to guide me, I was terrified to realise that if I rejected the notion that I was created to rule over the earth, and accepted the idea that I was but one of a million billion organisms on earth, and indeed inhabiting but one of the million phases of the evolution of my own particular organism, well, that meant that I was not significant in any way.. absolutely paralysing that was!

But so freeing. I actually do not have a mandate to control everything I can see, and can just enjoy my place in the sun, or wind or rain, or whatever.

And that uneasy feeling of malaise that most modern humans experience? I think it is that feeling you get when you have gone a very long way down the wrong road, and are just beginning to realise that you are going to have to back track forever to get to the right turning.

Because as you say, there are consequences to our humanity when we control Nature away. We cleverly learnt how to pipe water conveniently into our houses, but at what cost to our human nature was it to take away the necessity to walk to the river twice a day? I say this as a suburbanite with hot water on demand, but more and more, I am asking the question as I live my typical suburban life - "Why exactly am I doing this??" Not that I am about to run out to the woods and live in a cabin - there aren't enough woods, for one thing. But I am certainly beginning to live more deliberately in the suburbs, sort of Thoreau-lite:) Imagine the suburbs as a tangled jungle of food forest with local markets every few blocks. And if only I had had a rickshaw to harness my teenage boy to... that would have tired him out nicely..

onething said...

The thing that often strikes me is that the human race is absolutely mad, given to absurdities, quite unable to assess reality, and creates and stumbles from one nonsense to the next. People think that their waking lives are fundamentally different and more grounded than their dreams, but they are kidding themselves. It is more a matter of degree than kind.
But nature is the grounding force. The more complex the civilization, therefore, the more insanity.

denmon said...

I think that our species has always been and always will be "natural", regardless of its attempts to define itself otherwise. Simply believing that we could be separate from everything else in the universe is delusional and will lead to the utter estrangement from our symbiotic relationship with the only world that can sustain us. In doing so we have quickly adapted ourselves too dependently to a limited source of energy that cannot be replaced. Our dilemma is whether or not we can survive its loss and/or the havoc it's use has perpetuated. Nothing unnatural there.

konrat said...


I'm a long time reader, first time commenter. I haven't read any of your novels, but I can't wait to read your Mythos story.

I've studied quite a bit of Mongol history, and I'm not sure that tribal / primitive societies are less likely to collapse than others. Obviously, not having an imperial center is a big advantage for avoiding a visible collapse - after all, most people feel that the Roman empire collapsed when the city of Rome fell, never mind the fact that a whole bunch of people continued to think of themselves as Roman and maintain Roman institutions for a thousand years more. But non-civilized peoples are just as vulnerable to environmental collapse and the incursion of other nations as we are.
Arguably, all civilized societies are a result of the collapse of barbarian ones. And the barbarians did see it that way - there are a lot of records of the Mongol conquerors being shocked and offended when their children wanted to sleep in houses and learn to write poems instead of learning to ride horses.

Arguably, the collapse of traditional cultures is one of the largest phenomena of our time - practically all nomads are forced to settle down by the borders of nation-states; Aborigines in the European colonies are just recovering from two centuries of extreme abuse, and all the mountain peoples of China now get ID cards, vaccinations and a standardized education.

The opposite of the barbarian coming into civilization seems to be the pioneer - a person who leaves civilization for an all-natural world, with the goal of imposing her civilization on a new place. I'd love to see your new series of posts touch on that.

John Michael Greer said...

Betsy, good! When people mention travel without wheels to me, I tend to think of feet and horse's hooves, but a travois will do as well. Oh, and barges pulled along canals by mules: no wheels need apply.

Repent, I don't think it counts as putting Genghis Khan on a pedestal to point out that his model of human society is more durable, all things considered, than the model of civilization. That civilizations are relatively short-lived, and indeed self-terminating, doesn't make them morally inferior to the more enduring barbarian lifestyles. (Oh, and keep in mind that plenty of civilizations, ours very much among them, happily commit atrocities that would have impressed Genghis Khan...)

Clay, er, the thinking implied in that quote is exactly the sort of thing I was trying to critique when I pointed out the absurdity of linear views of history that lump all low-tech cultures into the single category of "primitive man." Male human beings in low-tech, non-agricultural cultures have a vast array of roles, which can't be flattened out into the single stereotype of "hunting meat." Basically, as I see it, Abbey here (and elsewhere) has embraced the same delusional linear version of history as the people he criticizes; he's just reversed the value judgments on the two ends of the line.

Caryn, exactly. Civilizations like to preen themselves on their humanity, justice, fairness, etc., and then go out and treat people at least as savagely as any barbarian warband you care to name. Is there any real difference between the US annihilating a wedding party with a drone strike and a bunch of barbarian raiders chopping the heads off random villagers? Not to my mind.

Mister R., look out the window and you'll get a good view. Stay tuned!

Hawkcreek, as noted in the post, there's a galaxy of different definitions of civilization; I simply chose to focus on one that has neglected implications.

Shhh, good. Stay tuned for a not entirely unrelated explanation.

Onething, yes, and we've discussed that here at length. I'm suggesting that there may be another factor.

Jo, good. You ought to get that rickshaw; convince your son that he can impress his friends by being able to outrun them in a rickshaw race, and you'll have his eager cooperstion. Adolescent male testosterone poisoning has its uses!

Onething, okay, now you're getting somewhere. Stay tuned... ;-)

Denmon, it all depends on your definition of that tricky word "natural" -- and of course in the grand scheme of things, you're quite right; creating complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent cultures is natural for human beings. Still, I'll be clarifying next week exactly what I mean by talking about more and less natural societies.

Konrat, hmm! An interesting perspective, and one that I'll consider.

KL Cooke said...


"If you were to define civilization as literate societies living in settled communities, and then ask for how long such societies have existed compared to how long modern H. sapiens has existed you still come to the same conclusion: civilization isn't natural to humanity. Or at least, not as common as other forms of social organization..."

I'm not an expert on the subject. Merely an amateur. However, from what I've read, Homo sapiens have been around for 200, 000 years, but what we call civilized for a mere 10,000. Apparently, civilization has only been possible due to a climatic interstice following the Younger Dryas, which lead to agriculture and then fixed architecture and writing. As we seem to be approaching the end of that interstitial period, it may be that civilization will no longer be possible. Or at least, not for quite a while.

Pure speculation, of course.

KL Cooke said...


"The Great plains Horse and a pair of pine poles transportation.
I wondered what we lose in our thinking and nature connectedness when we see more technology as better."

Not to take away from your point, which is a good one, but worth noting-- the travois were originally pulled by people and dogs. The Plains Indians only had horses for a few hundred years following the European invasion. So for them, horse culture was more and better technology.

Compound F said...

Harry Harlow. I know, but still. He went by Harry. I know people who knew him. He was a great psychologist, and fabulous drunk, by all accounts. I once wrote a paper on his hat tricks. He had great fun at the expense of behaviorists.

Thomas Daulton said...

Only tangentially connected to this week's post... yet again... but a familiar theme: the often-huge gap between the cutting-edge, Utopian technology in service of the elite -- versus the crappy, cut-corners technology that your average working schlub on the ground has to deal with.

A friend of mine on Facebook just posted: "Look at this lovely picture of Pluto, taken from 7000 miles away from the planetoid AND Pluto is 4 billion miles from earth. Here's my question. Why does my phone drop calls west of I-10 and DirectTV reception sucks whenever it's cloudy??"

Cue the reading of "Whitey on the Moon"...

KL Cooke said...


" favorite Edward Abbey Quote:

' The real work of men was hunting meat. The invention of agriculture was a giant step in the wrong direction, leading to serfdom, cities and empire. From a race of hunters,artists, warriors and tamers of horses we degraded ourselves to what we are now: clerks, functionaries, laboreres, entertainers , processors of information.' "

I like like romanticism too, but Edward Abbey should have been aware that horse taming began about 4000 years ago, well after the invention of agriculture. Animal husbandry was part of the invention.

Scotlyn said...

"The Art of Not Being Governed" by James C Scott comes to mind. Here:

Scott's anthropological history outlines the 2000-year-old interplay between the civilised and barbarian peoples of southeast Asia. Civilisations there have grown and evolved around rice paddies, which are a) easily reckonable for tax purposes and produce enough surplusses to keep a city fed.

By his account the hill people have always posed the ungovernable, untaxable, uncivilised alternative to the civilisations that came and went. And here's the thing... Each civilisation would tell how they used to be barbarians and acquired grace and learning and became civilised and speculated that the hill people would someday "catch up" - while, in fact, the boundary had always been fluid. Those fleeing civilisation when its demands became too onerous, or when its centre was collapsing, might as easily become hill people, exchanging literacy, law, conformity, for mobility, individualistic & idiosyncratic cultures and an ethic of ungovernability and of freedom from being told what to do.

Spanish fly said...

'In point of anthropological fact, the notion of “primitive man” as an allegedly unspoiled child of nature is pure hokum, and generally racist hokum at that.'

Racist hokum...not only again "true" primitive people. Labels like "primitive" or "Tribal" has being shooted here in Europe against ethnic/national minories. For instance, basque nationalism critics has being saying that basque language is barbaric, unable to be used for science and literature (so, educated people must speak/write in only in spanish, of course). Patriotic and folcloric meetings at Basque Country are tribalist and medieval (the other bogeeyman for western standard).

OK, I don't like very much my neighbours very-macho-jingoism (and irredentism against my region, and political violence), but I think that their critics should be less pharisaic. I think bull fighting (our national "fiesta"), whipping yourself in Holy Mary Virgin celebrations or goat launching from church tower are not very civilisated customs, in European standards.

Kurds are treated with similar bias in Turkey: rude, dirty and "primitive" mountain people.
Similar labels are shooted against big european countries that don't fit in our schemes. In WWI, French soldiers were told that Germans were "huns", and new Cold War has revived old propaganda images of russians: barbarians, asians, rude and aggresive people...
It's funny (wry amusement) to see that sometimes, minorities or countries mocked as primitive end believing offesive images: Germans at WWI were proud of their "hun" helmets, some Russians rejects "western" ideas (hell with those decadents, we are asiatic...) and some basque separatists are also primitivists: they believe that basque people and language are last survivors of CroMagnon people before Indoeuropean invasions. Of course, their ancestors were very happy, living in matriarcal neolithic and eating allucinogen mushrooms...Amen! (ha ha ha, what a joke).

Chloe said...

Modern anthropologists may have been responsible for denouncing typical constructions of "barbarian" and "primitive" as the (as you put it) hokum they are, but anthropology still has a lot to answer for, because it was to a large extent the early anthropologists of the Victorian era who set out the modern definitions and conceptions of the terms. (Though they were only working within their own cultural framework, and perhaps something similar would have arisen anyway.) Lewis Henry Morgan is perhaps most notable for the development of progressivist categories of "savage", "barbarian" and "civilised". Like you, he tried to use well-defined, explicit criteria to define those groups. But that's not really what the words imply, is it? At their core, "barbarian" and "civilised" are and always have been the value judgements of the members of large, complex societies with cities and bureaucracy towards the members of smaller, less complex ones. And yes, it tends to correlate with living in towns and dissociation from nature and other things like writing and kings, but what people mean when they say "civilised" is not the fact of those things but the undefinable way in which having them makes members of those societies somehow *better*. Which is... To be honest, it's something I can't quite wrap my head around. As mentioned, contemporary anthropologists shy away from the words and their implications - I don't have any real conception of the terms in my own right, only an awareness of what people tend to mean when they use them. ("Civilisation", to encompass the broad history and culture of a particular large-scale society - say, the Inca civilisation - is something of an exception.) Societies are hunter-gatherer or pastoralist or farmer or city-dweller, settled or nomadic, adapted to the environments they find themselves in - and some consist of small groups and use simple technology and leave less of an impact on the world around them (but not none) and some are large and use complex technology and leave more of an impact (but do not shape the world entirely to their own whims, despite what they might like to believe).

In both cases "adapted" is a relative term, dependent on demography and technology and the resource base and what people before them have done - urban societies have a more striking tendency towards overshoot and collapse, but it affects hunter-gatherers too. I don't think "dark age" societies are limited to the ashes of civilisations, though they may be the most extreme form - we can see evidence of the same patterns far back in prehistory, in the appearance and disappearance of traditions such as Stillbay and Howieson's Poort in Africa 60-70,000 years ago or the extinction of megafauna when people arrived in the Americas or Oceania. I tend to think that over time societies will trend towards less severe swings and ultimately balance, though perhaps more slowly than natural climate change throws them out of balance again - but they will cause some degree of irreparable damage to the environment in the process, and the higher population density inherent in complex urban societies (and therefore resource density required) makes it far more difficult to reach the balance point than it is for hunter-gatherers or dispersed farming communities. Some have perhaps come closer than others - China has a long history of growth and contraction that has never quite fallen into a dark age, and Mayan culture continued in modified form after their collapse, while almost everything of Mycenean Greece has been lost and the people of Easter Island resorted to cannibalism. In principle I believe it would be possible for an urban society to reach a sustainable point - perhaps in the form of the ecotechnic societies you envisage, or another - in practice I'm not so sure.

(I apologise for the lack of paragraph breaks. There was nowhere they wanted to go.)

Andrew Crews said...

John Michael Greer,

This happens to be one of your post I have a lot of depth on.

"If there’s such a thing as a natural human society, the basic dark age society is probably it"

There is an important separating line I would like to discuss in this particular grouping of categories.

Barbarians aren't quite Hunter-Gatherers, because the Visigoths and other tribal groups were still relying heavily on agriculture as sustenance. There is a certain ecological distinction that comes with that because hunter gatherer lifestyles did not have the population density to force the ecological and social changes that are more apparent in agricultural tribal societies. Particularly the violence associated with Barbarism was a non-factor because resources were disperse not clustered in discrete locations, which changed elements of control and hierarchy.

the rest of your hypothesis overall plays out well with my anthropological understanding of per-history. I would posit barbarians are one step removed from nature compared to hunter gatherers. HG's had to know ecological relationships in a much more pure and in depth way in order to know where particular reproductive windfalls were in order to find food, i.e. fruit here this time of year before the coming of the yellow birds, eels reproducing in the marshes with the new moon after the great hunt, the underground explosion of the nutritious grubs with the beginning of the dry season after the end of the monsoon. Agriculture still heavily connected to nature, but agriculturalist were blinded to the dizzying complexity and depth and sheer productivity of intact ecosystems.

I keep detecting hints in your writing at the idea that destruction of our ancestral intact ecosystems and lifestyles has had a cascade of consequences in the way society is organized and the shape history takes. I agreed wholeheartedly with this post, I just think for narrative reason's it is very very important not to conflate the form humans spent the past 3 millions years in as something we reverted to the the twilight of dark ages. I believe Barbarism is the compromise of our hunter-gatherer instincts with an agricultural society devoid of urbanism. Something very very relevant to the near future.

ed boyle said...

Highly urbanized environments must retain large percentages of trees, shrubs, grass and parks in and among buildings, streets, etc. to maintain a healthy psychological environment. In Hamburg trees are everywhere. The greater metro area has 3 million people in a sea near area with a large harbour, very rainy. It must be approximately like Seattle, although I don't know Seattle and you have likely not been to Hamburg. I believe studies likely exist comparing mental health of urban population based on reen proportion of city and its distribution. Kunstler likely could confirm this. In the last several days biking home late from work I found solace in the beauty of the trees, along train lines almost forest like in its density, giving a sense, in the evening of rural isolation and nearness to God after work in an artificial human made environment sucking one's soul dry the whole day.

Rita Narayanan said...

on the subject of Ghengis Khan, the Mongols also instituted the Office of the Dalai Lama.: it would seem that the quantity of Rape & pillage did see a fall.

Tibetan history is also a good example of how a distant Shangrila (despite having a sophisticated monastic society)had a very violent history full of intrigues and such.

Religion and culture despite everything has a ugly peacock feet syndrome :)

Tiago said...

The difference between rural and city is sometimes less clear, at least here in the UK. I once heard George Monbiot saying that the amount of bird species in some "rural" parts of the UK is much lower than in some medium-sized cities (Oxford was is example).

Indeed some rural parts were nothing more that a carefully controlled monoculture lump with sheep on top.

On the other hand, gardens in typical British semi-detached houses harboured a reasonable amount of diversity that could sustain a much wider variety of birds.

Mister Roboto said...

Mister R., look out the window and you'll get a good view.

That's what I thought: A slightly less violence-prone version of Star Trek's "Mirror-Mirror" universe. Our major cities have become such utterly terrible places to live on so many different levels, as just one example. I live in the Milwaukee area, and right now, my greatest desire is to spend my final days, whenever those will be, in the smallish Wisconsin town I detested when I was a teenager.

Stuart Jeffery said...

Having spoken to one of the trees in my garden it is very glad that it lives in the barbarous wild lands of suburbia rather than the monochrome, tree created, civilised forests.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Jo, when I was in my teens, I had the great good fortune of getting to go on some fairly long and strenuous summer backpacking trips in the High Sierra, in some of the most beautiful wilderness in the world. My mind by that time was furnished with a decent scientific education. I wasn't an athletic child, nor was I required to do physical labor, so these long hikes on mountain trails carrying a load were the only times in my life that I've ever experienced my body in really good physical shape.

Midway through one of those trips I was walking by myself on a sunny day, looking at 360 degrees of grand scenery near and far, with a breeze carrying good smells, and was at the sweet spot in the trip where I was fully acclimated to the altitude and had lightened my load by eating some of the food. I thought, "The world is very, very large and I am very small and not important, but I am a part of all this." That was a cheerful thought and it has stuck with me.

Honyocker said...

With regard to the question in your last paragraph, I've often thought that we end up
where we are now. This civilization seems to be run by a bunch of arrested 9 year- olds obsessed with shiny things, the glories of war and their own self-importance since they have a daddy god who will fix everything they destroy.

patriciaormsby said...

I was very very lucky 15 years ago to be made ill enough, together with my husband, that getting out of the city became the only viable option for both of us. So now we live in a rural village that is gradually dying off, as young people cannot make enough money here to live according to the standards that are considered "minimum," as demonstrated on TV, and old folks die off one by one, leaving vacant houses to rot and provide breeding spaces various sorts of competitive species known collectively as varmints. There is a certain melancholy here, with what few housewives remain isolated and depressed, but I can't say I miss anything at all about the city. If it were not for the Net, I might find too little intellectual stimulation here, but on the other hand, I'd probably get around and find interesting people. I know they are here, but I am just too busy to get out and socialize with them as I should, and they, likewise, are probably busy hammering away on their own devices.

Your post this week reminded me of the last time I took a commuter train in Tokyo, a bit over a year ago. I think that conurbation still ranks as the world's biggest population center. I used to take those trains five or six days a week, and each time, I would look out at the distant mountains to the west, the only natural thing visible, and wish the ratio of nature to man-made in my visual field were reversed. How I hated Tokyo! And it is a really nice city with nice people, and I sort of enjoy visiting it now and then. Yet if it were not for the fortuitous illnesses (which we got under control once we got away from the city), my husband and I would still be grinding away there, escaping it on weekends and merely fantasizing about collapse preparations.

I have to pester Tony Boys into reading this week's post. He's the one who really got me to think about what Peak Oil meant in concrete terms, and he has written a thesis on happiness in which he stresses the importance of contact with nature in finding real happiness. I can attest to this myself, but cannot explain it to others. Most people I know swear they are much happier in the city, but I also think most do not know nature and are basically afraid of it. I hope I can find ways to connect Tony's message with more people.

Here is his thesis for anyone curious:

Stein L said...

Will Durant had it as:

“For barbarism is always around civilization, amid it and beneath it, ready to engulf it by arms, or mass migration, or unchecked fertility. Barbarism is like the jungle; it never admits its defeat; it waits patiently for centuries to recover the territory it has lost.” (page 265)

There's a part of "A Man for All Seasons" that makes the distinction between civilization and barbarism well. It's when Thomas rails against the desire to break the law in order to arrest someone at will - "You'd give the devil the benefit of the law." And Thomas would.

Barbarism is when we no longer can predict how we will be treated when dealing with the powers about us - when laws become sham. Just as Thomas was failed by his king, for being unwilling to go along with the monarch's unprincipled whims; we risk being failed by our institutions, if they are bent sufficiently to make it impossible to predict when we are safe, and when we are not.

It's possible for a city to be barbarian, so to speak; just as much as it is possible for nomads to be civilized when tribal laws are clear and fairly exercised. These days, we should ask whether we aren't allowing the darkness of barbarism to engulf the world, as various "world orders" put aside the inconvenience of predictable laws to achieve the temporarily expedient.

patriciaormsby said...

Just as an addendum, inspired by Cathy McGuire's post, and I thank her for the link to the fiction entries. Never underestimate the importance of grinding away at your writing, even when you feel like you're not at your best. It is amazing sometimes how other people feel inspired by the result. I've felt this and observed it in others as a priestess, too. It's been times when I was just going through the motions of the ceremonies that had become routine, under a load of other concerns weighing me down, that the magic happened for the observers, and they connected with the divine. It seems like a person becomes more "professional" under these circumstances. The result is beautiful.

With that in mind, I really ought to set up an hour each week, during which I go work on my novel, no matter how I feel. If I give it a little nudge, I start the wheels turning again. Then it is not unusual if I have the need to stay up all night writing furiously.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's a free book called The Ancient City, by the wonderfully named Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges.
It shows that the city was not just an agglomeration of people dense enough for intense social and economic relations, as it is now. It was a shared identity based on common ancestry and shared religious cult, going back to the worship of the paternal dead and of fire showing the continued existence of the family, and the group of families that had participated in the sacred act of founding the city. This is a different basis for civilization and explains the intense localism of the ancient cities.
Ancient City

Steve Carrow said...

Humans that settle and create a built environment that doesn't match the brain wiring that evolved through millennia of hunting and gathering in a natural setting will result in a disconnect, agreed. The social environment changes as well.

I think the other change that occurs is that of human group dynamics when group size goes far above the Dunbar number. When mediated by direct relationships, certain behaviors will be possible and successful, others less so. Some of the new social patterns, memes, or what have you that can propagate when numbers are large seem to generally be ones that will try to concentrate power, resources, and control. And they are only successful in that human social environment.

This could well be stable if resources continue to support it, but as you have pointed out many times, eventually the resource limit is reached, and the collapse occurs. I don't know if it is a chicken and egg thing, or which is cause and effect, but it does seem that complex societies, with the wealth pump supporting them, exist at the same time that these large group behaviors are occurring.

Is the fatal flaw of civilization baked in from the start? Is it even possible for human behavior to be both successful in the civilizational setting as well as accounting for the physical limits? So far, I'm thinking no. A game theory expert might have something to say about this.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

@k-dog: Yes, it is helpful to focus on that interpretation of the multifaceted term "civilization" on which necessary (although perhaps not by themselves jointly sufficient) conditions for being civilized are truthfulness, balance, orderliness, and fairness. However exactly we define the word "civilization", it is helpful to take it in such a way that technology and urbanization do not by themselves logically guarantee the presence of civilization.

I myself like, in describing current society, to think of inadequately civilized peoples equipped with cellphones and credit cards, inhabiting condominium towers. The difference between these unhappy peoples and the Vandals and Goths (to the critical eyes of Augustine and Jerome deficient in civilization) is more a difference in costume than in essence.

@JMG: Your thoughts on nature and cities make me hope that you will someday do a post on the philosophy of gardening.

Two types of city might be distinguished in such a conceivable philosophical examination.

(a) There is the city in which nature is bludgeoned. Grass is trimmed short or paved over; meals are dished onto plastic plates from metal canisters, filled in remote food-canning factories; textiles come from polymer-chemistry nozzles; walls are poured from concrete over rebar cores; and so on.

(b) There is the city in which nature is under pervasive human direction, and yet in which humans aim not to bludgeon nature but to cooperate with it. Here parks have their grass unmowed (except, as it might well be, for artistic paths mowed into tallgrass meadow, as walkway-avenues for visitors exercising small dogs, and additionally as walkway-mazes for children playing games); meals are cooked at home, with solar concentrators or hibachi grills, from vegetables purchased in a farmer's market (I recall here the market which has been held in Toronto, with Niagara Peninsula produce, in the big plaza by the City Hall entrance); the textiles are wools and linens; walls are of short logs-in-the-round, laid horizontally in mortar, or else are of fieldstone; and so on. A city of the second type is from the standpoint of philosophical analysis a garden, being a place in which humans enter into a working and artistic partnership with non-human nature.

It is easier to nurture k-dog's prerequisites-of-civilization (kindness, fairness, balance,...) in a city of the second type than in a city of the first type.

Reflections on this "metaphysics of gardening" might possibly involve some engagement with minimalist Zen gardening (this is a topic I have not studied), and also with two prominent examples of bold gardening design in Britain - Sissinghurst in Kent, and Highgrove in Gloucestershire. These are gardens in which the partnership with nature attains a level of breathtaking innovation. Sissinghurst shocked the 1940s or 1950s British by introducing the "white garden" into national horticultural practice. Highgrove has playfully varied that by-now-verging-on-cliché 50-shades-of-white theme with a "black garden" - you use lots and lots of black tulips, apparently - and additionally features such things as a tall fern mound (I think there is some clever engineering to discourage landslip, perhaps with wrought iron or similar) and a "Stumpery". Gardening when done properly has sometimes an element of sharp, fresh surprise, like Shostakovitch or Picasso transposed into chlorophyll.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
approx 20-25 km north of Toronto City Hall
www dot metascientia dot com

Travis said...

Hi John, Loved this post. I have been a landscaper for over fifteen years. The line between civilization and barbarism (believe it or not) is the stage that my fellow brethren, sistren and I balance upon every day. We are literally (particularly with maintenance, mowing, edging, shrub trimming, etc) paid to keep landscapes from growing. Or if you like, keeping artificial systems safe from their mortal enemy "wildness" that constantly and forever does everything it can to bring these artificial systems back into the broader reality.
Wildness is the enemy of the civilized mind. For instance, any plant, could be the most exquisite rose you've ever seen, is a weed if it was not planted by a human on purpose. People will ask "is this a weed" which I commonly answer "weed is a relative term" which they then look at me like I'm, at best a jokester, and worst an idiot. So the intended rose becomes the symbol of high civilization, while its offspring or relatives, are the symbol of invading hordes.
I often get the notion that this mentality has deep roots in the denial, or fear of death or impermanence. Everyday the yard looks like it did the day before. Creating a perfect illusion of permanence and meaning. Perhaps civilization itself shares these same roots.
Thanks again!

Kyoto Motors said...

You have loaded the bases over the past few weeks, and with this post, you have hit the ball out of the park!
For readers interested in the anthropological understanding of ancient wisdom embodied in so-called primitive societies, I recommend "The Wayfinders - Why Ancient Wisdom Matters" by Wade Davis. One of the key take-away messages here being that these societies must not be viewed as "failed attempts" at being Modern. Rather, they are achievements in human ingenuity unto themselves.
Thanks for the great read!

John Crawford said...

“A barbarian is a human who is perceived to be uncivilized. The word is often used either in a general reference to member of a nation or ethnos, typically a tribal society as seen by an urban civilization either viewed as inferior, or admired as a noble savage. In idiomatic or figurative usage, a "barbarian" may also be an individual reference to a brutal, cruel, warlike, insensitive person.”

From Webster’s Dictionary via

Using this definition in a so-called civilized society a whole group of “civilized” people could be so classified. A good example would be the recent brutal behavior of the modern German state toward Greece. Clearly the former considers itself superior to the latter, thus more civilized, but in reality their actions better fit the above definition. How about mechanized murder by remote control, by drones, classify an imperial superpower?

It would seem a barbarian is really a matter of one’s point of view. In that instance it would be easy classify the whole group of neo-con politicians in our country to the category of “barbarian”; but, how about the otherwise civilized and “kindly” liberal who insists corporations can deal with the rapidly advancing environmental problems we face or the well-meaning conservative or evangelical types who insists, apparently in good faith, that it is all a hoax. Would their actions, which may lead to devastating environmental damage and untold human misery, be considered barbaric?

“I’m o.k., he’s o.k., you’re not.” It’s all a matter of opinion and intent.
Good post and I look forward to the next.

rabtter said...

Ok, not some type of electronic media. I'm going to go with something simple: a permanent dwelling -- its blocks out the sights, sounds, smell and threats of The Great Outdoors.

onething said...

I see that people are perpetuating the myth that civilization - with its technology, literacy, complexity and agriculture have something to do with morality, refinement, less cruelty, more enlightened attitudes and so forth.

But there is no correlation at all.

WW said...

It's not so much that this is a subtle distinction as it is that I'm not taking the time to express my thought properly. I'm very fond of Dorner's The Logic Of Failure, which does a very nice job of explaining various aspects of how we go wrong with complex systems. It's not just one thing.

Dorner says "Because our grasp of reality can be only partial, we have to be able to adjust the course of our actions after we have launched them; analyzing the consequences of our behavior is crucial for making these ex post facto adjustments." He then goes on to describe an experiment, but I'll skip to the result-

"The desire to check on efficacy seems to increase but never assumes major proportions. That is odd because we would expect that rational people faced with a system they cannot fully understand would sieze every chance to learn more about it and would therefore behave "nonballistically." For the most part, however, the experiment participants did not do that. They shot off their decisions like cannonballs and gave hardly a second thought to where those cannonballs might land."

I have the sense that many aspects of "Civilization" amplify this tendency, as they seem to make the consequences of behaviors less clear, and muddle feedback, but in a non obvious way. It's kind of a synergistic effect that plays into various weaknesses in human cognition while reinforcing the mistaken perception that we're doing great.

Having written all that, it seems to be pretty similar to what you said, but I get the feeling that it's more to do with our currently fashionable concept of the human intellect preventing us from seeing it as something with weaknesses or flaws which we need to compensate for. Actually, the further I go with this the more I feel I'm recapitulating.

daelach said...

@ k-dog:
You wrote: [i]but the real measure of civilization is far more subtle. It's measure is how well men treat men.[/i]

No, it isn't. That's mistaking a specific set of ethics (i.e. the one we pretend to have) for civilisation as such. Ask the Spartans about that. Or the Romans. Or the US government. Or the Chinese one.

Plus that the "primitive man" line of thought kicks in here again. As if savages were treating each other overly cruelly. At least they cannot slaughter each other in masses as in WW1. And they can't build gas chambers as in WW2. Within a tribal group, killing each other is not an accepted way of solving problems because it would make the group so weak that it would become prey to other, more cohesive groups. Same as for us.

Another interesting aspect is that it is exactly your ethics that makes a late civilisation ripe for being conquered by warlords (who don't buy into such ethics).

Plus that the violence doesn't stop anyway, it is just being outsourced. It's not that e.g. the US get 25% of the world's resources with only 5% of the world's population because the whole rest doesn't want to have more, you know..

On the other hand and historically, such subcontracted warlords usually found out sooner or later that they can have a better living when they eliminate their contractors from the equation and keeep the loot for themselves. Which is possible because the contractors would not do the dirty work themselves.

So if you want to discard all that as "uncivilised", then you're approaching the "true Scotsman fallacy" when it comes to civilisations. It's wishful thinking to link "civilisation" to "how well men treat men".

Patricia Mathews said...

I am reminded that the ancient Greeks seemed to think that living in a polis was the natural state of Man, just as living in a nest is the natural state of birds, and that those who did not, were missing a fundamental human experience. With that mindset, they didn't need a word for "civilized" other than "Greek."

Myriad said...

The question at hand goes back, it appears, to the question of the nature of human intelligence discussed two weeks ago. It happens that my life has been steeped in that question. I have a developmentally disabled twin brother, whom I grew up with and who is sitting next to me as I write this. For a dozen years or so I was taught to regard him and myself as near opposites, separated by an unfathomable gap of (as such things were obsessively measured in the 60's) about a hundred IQ points. The single most significant moment in my philosophical and spiritual life—the closest thing I've had or will ever have to an initiation—was the realization, in my early teens, that the two of us are in fact almost alike.

("Yeah, but you'd be horrified at the idea of being like him, of trading places with him, right?" people ask. No, I wouldn't, but I think not many people can believe or understand that answer. That's how much my world view shifted.)

Wondering how our limited human intelligence can have encompassed so much is a bit like wondering how a simple mirror can reflect so many varied and complex scenes. The mirror needs a lot of help from the rest of the world to do that, and so do we.

The core components of intelligence, whose evolutionary success values are easy to account for, seem to be the ability to learn and remember a large number of pieces of information about the world, and the ability to weave narrative out of those pieces of information. The latter ability, besides being immediately useful for survival, is the beginning of creativity (and possibly of consciousness as well, as we include ourselves as active characters in that ongoing narrative process). Then our linguistic and manipulative abilities close the feedback loop, allowing our narratives (including stories, methods, styles, discoveries, equations, etc.) to become part of the world that others learn and remember. Literacy and mass publication significantly change the nature of that feedback loop, from flows to accumulations (e.g. libraries).

That's why I've never accepted the postmodern notion that sciences could be entirely social constructs or arbitrary conventions. We aren't smart enough to have constructed them, without the assistance of a lot of reliable feedback from a nature external to ourselves. Even for mathematics, I'm fairly certain, there's something "really there" (either divine or embedded in the nature of reality, if there's any difference between those two choices) for mathematical minds to reflect upon.

The "mirror" metaphor for intelligence has some useful and interesting implications. For one thing, it's one clear distinction between human minds and computers. Computers that have been damaged in several different places, or that are assembled with a substantial fraction of their components missing, do nothing. Mirrors that are damaged or incomplete still reflect, albeit somewhat less completely. My brother can't read or write, but he can tell the stories of events in his life. As far as I can gather, his conscious experience, internally, is as complete as mine. The set of things I know or understand that he doesn't looms large in terms of navigating everyday life in today's world, but small compared with all-that-is.

Myriad said...


The mirror metaphor turns "what you contemplate, you imitate" into nearly a tautology.

It's also validation, at least partially, of the Eastern idea that the separation between ourselves and the rest of the world is illusion. If my intelligence is primarily mirror-like, then what I think of as "me" didn't arise directly from my brain (which does provide the framework to accumulate and maintain "me") nor from my individual genetic makeup (which does alter and "color" aspects of "me" like the variations in an imperfect mirror) but from the external world that included parents, trees, teachers, weather, friends, animals, mentors, books, art, and many other things, all of which almost literally impressed themselves upon me.

So, what does the mirror metaphor mean for civilization? Consider what happens when a mirror is reflecting nothing except other mirrors. The results can be startling and beautiful, but there's nothing there except abstract pattern and illusory depth. A hall of mirrors is a passably good metaphor for insanity (a literal "tyranny of reflection" if you will). The aural analogue is the familiar "echo chamber," any setting in which ideas are unchecked by disagreement (let alone external reality) and so are guaranteed to become a race to the farthest reaches of absurdity.

(This reminds me of the "superstitious" fear of being photographed that's sometimes described in Western accounts of "primitive" tribes. As far as I can tell, personal portraiture is pretty much nonexistent outside of civilization. And while merely having a portrait painted or a photograph taken doesn't appear to have actual harmful effects, it seems few people whose images end up getting copied millions of times—heads of state, originally, but today also lesser politicians, billionaires, actors, ball players, musicians, and other celebrities—remain sane for very long.)

Of course, literal images (and literal mirrors) are only one tiny facet of civilized existence. Literacy appears to loom much larger, as a step toward building surrogate human surroundings. If I recall correctly, Conan was literate but most of the books and scrolls he encountered were tomes of evil sorcery fit only for destruction. In that regard, I can't say I welcome his example or his arrival.

fudoshindotcom said...


Recently I've had occasion to consider at length the difference between a "civilized" society and an "un-civilized" society. One aspect that repeatedly entered my thoughts was the "honesty" with which each type of society conducted itself. Regardless of the angle I viewed it from, or minor changes to the definition of "honesty", the conclusion I reached was always that an "un-civilized" society correlates positively with a higher level of "honesty".

Twilight said...

When I read these descriptions of barbarism and civilization it simply seemed like a description of rural vs. urban society. While both can be complex they vary in degree of hierarchy, specialization, complexity and the degree in which they exclude nature from the environment (among other things). Rural societies usually provide members more autonomy, and have lower population densities and fewer regular interactions.

However, I'm not even sure how separate they are, as large cities appear to be an unsustainable and limited end stage for any society that develops them. How can such exist without an associated rural population to provide for their food? And if that large a percentage of the population not involved with food production can be supported, then in all likelihood the land providing their food is being overproduced and will fail.

So if the concentrated population civilizations are inherently short lived, then the “barbarians” of more sustainable, more self-reliant rural societies near them will be in a position to move in. That's not an opportunity likely to go unexploited. Do urban civilizations ever get taken over by their own rural members?

Dark ages seem to be something else – inherently less complex and lower population density. Also less culturally sophisticated, the previous culture having failed. But it seems like the barbarian's society gets destroyed too – perhaps the act of trying to absorb a nearby civilization is too disruptive for either to survive?

MIckGspot said...

"Natural" definition, tricky sure enough and likely to change for people as time and circumstance alter cases.
I used to think of "natural" as the environment of the great out doors, untamed Forests, wilderness without permanent human habitation.
Being blessed with much time and experience in the wild has widened my understanding of "natural" to include all environments as they are wherever they are.
Per my definition humans are part of nature as are the artifacts produced by humans. Thus a nuclear power plant is "natural". A product of evolutionary development in the "natural" world via humans.
Thanks to JMG and company for helping me develop my view of nature.

Roger said...

Have you heard of people that were blind since birth ie from cataracts, only to have the defect surgically fixed in adult-hood? Even after the surgery, when they no longer have an impediment to light reaching inside the eyeball, these folk can't "see", and that's even if light stimulus gets through the eye and its various mechanisms, through the optic nerve to the brain.

"Seeing", apparently, is a learned skill and the human brain shapes itself neuronally as the learning takes place. Seems that past a certain age the brain can't shape itself any more and the person stays with severely limited visual perception, that being an impairment in distinguishing shapes, colours etc. I've read of these people going back to living as they were before the surgery.

Such is what happens when stimuli are restricted. Which goes back to your point of kids that are restrained in the exploration of the natural world. I don't doubt these people will be impaired in various ways with no amount of compensatory experience later in life un-doing the damage. Once critical stages in psychological and cognitive development are over, they're over.

aiastelamonides said...

JMG, a few things:

1) I suspect you will cover this next week, but I would like to know how you account for the periods of flourishing between one dark age and the next. I realize that to a certain extent these are illusions, since individual states rise and fall much faster than the civilization they make up, but to another (greater, I would say) extent they are a product of genuine talent and wisdom among the rulers. Falling civilizations have to differ from rising ones as well as barbarian societies.
To make myself more clear: The best-attested hypothesis of the general form of collapse is that the elites start out clever, build up a toolbox for solving crises, start relying on it, and thus lose their capacity for original thought. Eventually a large-scale change presents a new challenge. Lacking both appropriate tools and the old tool-making turn of mind, the civilization is severely weakened even if does eventually find a solution. After a few rounds of this, the strength to implement a solution is gone.
Barbarians also become reliant on toolboxes, but they have two related advantages- their infrastructure is easier to move to a new place where the old conditions hold, and they usually have a less rickety economic base in the first place. They are as vulnerable to military imbalances and economic integration as civilizations are to environmental imbalances and economic disintegration. The total effect is a mixture of how tradition alters the mind, how cities alter economic structures (in case of civilizations, at least), and how the environment, in the largest sense, alters itself.
Any other collapse hypothesis has to incorporate itself into the above general hypothesis (catabolic collapse does quite elegantly), or else accept whatever slice of the explanation is not taken up by that hypothesis. As far as I can tell that slice is negligible. That would require urban-mindedness to be either a restrictive factor or the new challenge. It is not the latter, since it should appear shortly after cities do, which is to say well before the civilization starts downhill.
If urban-mindedness is a limitation, it is obviously a limit on thought, rather than a limit on action (such as a military disadvantage, a resource shortage, or a bad economic system). But the place for this kind of restriction is already taken by creativity failure (or blindness to reality), which occurs with or without cities. On the other hand, limits on action have considerable explanatory power. This does not quite show that there aren't other important mental factors, but it shows that the reverse would be very hard to show.
The one place I can see you going with this is that city dwellers are more self-serving (as is their stereotype), and that a lack of compassion and cooperation makes it easier to get pushed by immediate personal incentives towards societal destruction- in effect it would be a self-imposed limit on action. This would tie in nicely with the discussion of free will. However, the connection to nature is not obvious.

2) This is anecdotal, but the clearest regularity among my urban-grown friends is that they are less intense politically than their rural counterparts. Part of this is because my urban-grown friends are wealthier, but even my well-off friends who were raised outside of cities exhibit the same intensity.

3) That there is a plain sense of "natural" in which dark ages are the natural human state is intriguing, seeing as dark ages are self-terminating and thus in another sense unnatural. It says something interesting about human nature, and about any attempt to homogenize the civilizations into Civilization.

4) Speaking of slogging through writing, I am mostly done with a Space Bats entry that is, in its small way, part of the illustrious lineage of the sci-fi "literature of ideas," rather than the fantasy one (or the Real Literature one). It'll probably be fully done in 3 weeks or so.

Isaac Hill said...

I had this other thought, the binary division between Civilization and Barbarians is kind of false, because it seems to me that barbarians are not the same as traditional hunter-gatherers, they occupy a space in between hunter gatherers and civilization. Barbarians have metal, horses and other things which allow them to move around faster and actually be able to sack a city.

Elizabeth Kennett said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

Thank you for yet another dose of sanity.

As far as "primitive" communities still being "in the stone age", I use the term to apply to all of us.

Look around. We learned to chip stone some time back, and we are still using it for walls, paving, decorations, and even the occasional arrowhead. We learned to form clay in prehistory and bake it into brick and pottery, and we still are. The Egyptians, I understand, figured out glass, and it's everywhere. We learned to make cement in Roman times, and it is still a major ingredient in paving and building. More recently, we've learned to refine the really tiny stones called sand in very particular and demanding ways, and when we run electricity thru it, it helps us keep track of things, and, depending on the quality of instructions we give it, it does all kinds of calculating for us, so we don't need the steampunk variety of calculator, or old-fashioned paper and pencil (and brain cells). (Except, of course, that properly functioning brain cells are needed more than ever.) I have heard that the researchers are getting close to the limit decided by the laws of physics for integrated circuits, so it will be interesting to see what happens next. And a pile of rocks will still entertain children for hours. We never left the stone age; we just got better at it. I agree with you that using it as a putdown is hokum.

I am very much looking forward to your next Archdruid Report.

Elizabeth Ann Kennett

Isaac Hill said...

- Ah should have read the rest of the comments, Andrew already said that.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

I agree with poster "L Stein" (above), who writes the following: It's possible for a city to be barbarian, so to speak; just as much as it is possible for nomads to be civilized when tribal laws are clear and fairly exercised.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com

SLClaire said...

Last week I was visiting a close relative who lives in a very young McMansion filled subdivision. Someone who was looking at just one lot, or a few, might think of it as rather green and pretty. By the third day there, after my husband and I had spent an hour walking through much of the subdivision, I realized that it was nothing more than a green machine. To its inmates it is merely a pleasant backdrop for their more important considerations, whether those be jobs, parenting, a home base between retirement travel, or whatever else occupies their days. The uniformity of the landscaping astonished me. A very small set of trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials, and annuals comprised every single such plant in their manicured, artfully curved mulched beds (except for the few weeds that the landscapers hadn't yet removed). Only two yards included purple coneflowers among the mulched beds - this common garden plant seemed radical, even shocking, in this highly ordered environment. And the uniformity was not only intentional but valued, as a comment from the aforementioned relative revealed. The visual machinery reflected the machine sensibility of the subdivision's inmates. I don't use the term inmate lightly, either. Every adult living there is in a self-imposed prison. No need for gates, either; they pay big bucks for the privilege of living in their prison.

Back at my own place, I have to admit that I have placed a lot of what is in my own gardens. But not everything; fortunately the place is big enough that I have to allow nature her way in most of it most of the time. It feels to me like an oasis in the midst of an urban desert, though I have to say that I long for more time in still less controlled place. The comment above about the washed-out night sky in urban areas speaks to me too. But it would take two hours of driving to get out to where I could see the stars and I am not sure that I can justify that use of fuel unless and until I can reduce more driving than it would take up. I do have a secret place nearby that is under very little human influence but have not spent as much time there as I'd like. That will continue to be on my list of changes to make.

Auriel Ragmon said...

Many years ago in San Francisco, a group of kids who lived in Hunters Point, a large low-income housing tract we taken by a bunch of social workers on an overnikght field trip to Muir Woods, a nice nature place with big trees. The kids were terrified that they had to stay there that night. They scared themselves half to death by talking about the bears and cougars and other animals that might come and eat them. They were only too happy to get back to their depressing 'urban' environment the next day.
Jim of Olym

sgage said...

@ Toomas

"A city of the second type is from the standpoint of philosophical analysis a garden, being a place in which humans enter into a working and artistic partnership with non-human nature. "

Your city of the second type is surely the better of the two you've put forward, but it's still a city, and shaggy lawns aside, is still a human/designed environment. I.e., not 'wild'. As such there is still a lack of something, some 'other'. There is still control, albeit gentler.

I think that when humans live in an overly human designed environment, where all encounters with nature are basically mediated (if they happen at all), they become mad, insande. Most people live in a hall of mirrors, just reflecting their own inner stuff back at them. The Internet makes this much, much worse. I think that's where we're at in industrial civ.

John Michael Greer said...

Compound F, thanks for the correction!

Thomas, that's on topic -- what's the division between those who have full access to technology that works and those who don't but an echo of the line between civilization and barbarism?

Scotlyn, thank you! I'll put that one on the get-to-this list.

Spanish Fly, true enough. Eight hundred years ago, I bet the educated people in al-Andalus used to tell people who spoke Castilian that they needed to learn Arabic, since the Castilian language wasn't suited at all to science and literature...

Chloe, good. It's precisely the notion that "civilized" and "barbarous" are value judgments, rather than simple descriptors, that I want to challenge here.

Andrew, okay, notice that you've shifted the grounds of the discussion from culture to subsistence mode. "Hunter-gatherer" is a description of a particular mode of human subsistence; there is no one "hunter-gatherer culture" -- that's exactly the fallacy of "primitive man" I critiqued in the post. Cultures that have the hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence in common don't necessarily have much of anything else in common, and they do generally have complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent cultural forms. By contrast, dark age societies may have a less natural subsistence mode but their cultures are radically simplified and tend to follow common patterns across space and time.

Ed, no argument there at all. Seattle has only about 700,000 people, but the urban area surrounding it has several million; it used to have a lot of trees, though from what I've heard it lost most of them over the last few decades of urban boom.

Rita, granted. It's only from a distance, through rose-colored glasses, that anyplace at all looks like Shangri-La.

Tiago, of course. I was highlighting two ends of a complex spectrum.

Mister R., good luck extracting yourself!

Stuart, the thought of a barbarian tree swaggering its way into a tree-farm monoculture is rather pleasant. "And to hear the lamentations of the loggers..."

Honyocker, some of them believe in a daddy god. Others believe that there's no one at all who can take them to task. I'm not sure there's an advantage either way.

Brezelburg said...


interesting post as usual, I'm very much looking forward to the conclusion next week. This bit of evolutionary biology sprung to my head toward the end of this week's essay, though, and if you haven't heard about it, it might help substantiate your hypothesis. Certainly goes in a similar direction:

When Russian fur traders decided that it was too much of a hassle to set traps for silver foxes in the wild and instead started to breed them in captivity, selecting for docile specimens that would remain calm and not bite all the time around humans, they ended up with slightly smaller, slightly dumber, tail-wagging, barking foxes. Unfortunately for them, the fur also lost its famous hue and turned spotty.
Biologists looked into the matter and found that on an epigenetic level, the fox DNA had "decided" that circumstances were apparently harmless enough to dispense with a collection of rather energy-intensive features largely related to physical strength and sharpness of insticts and senses, and instead switched on a set of genes that makes a "light" version of the fox, fit enough to survive in vastly less dangerous circumstances, but less expensive metabolically.

It seems this stripped-down version is built into many species of mammal, but usually lies dormant. It is only expressed if individuals with an unusally low flight distance get to interbreed over an extended period, which was probably the case among those wolves that dared to venture close to human settlements around 10,000 years ago (or so) to feast on the leftovers of human meals. The result in that case was the dog, but I like to think that humans from civilized societies are subject to, or rather the result of, a similar process triggered by their own changes to the environment.

The absence of energy-intensive instictual capacities and the rest of the genetic downgrade, of course, turns into a serious problem once the safe, artificial environment goes away, and the offspring of civilized folk, after a selection process that now favours the canny, return to being barbarians, the reliable, if costly, version of homo sapiens that can acually survive in the wild.

That's that. I thought it fitted right into what you're writing about.

Bonus fun fact instead of a source or such boring academic nonsense: Apparently housecats don't have the "cat light" feature and can usually return to full wild cat mode if necessary, they just prefer being treated like babies. I can't blame them.

Cherokee Organics said...


Totally chuffed with this essay. Nice work and yes Conan the book does deserve a look in. I was really annoyed because all this talk about Conan had me reaching into my library for my copy only to find that someone had theifed (sic - that word was a nod to an old NZ song about a couple of locals that had their Car Stolen - very, very funny indeed) off with it. It is sort of fitting isn't it really. Yesterday whilst in the big smoke, I searched through five different book shops for a copy, but to no avail. Strangely enough there was plenty of copies of Lovecraft to be found, but no Smith... I must confess to being a bit annoyed by people "borrowing" books and not returning them and I'm a bit reluctant - actually very reluctant - to loan books out now - which possibly also means that in your terms my library is constipated! Hehe! It is sad that people can't respect the social niceties and I always try to lead by example when borrowing things by returning them with a thank you gift in as good as or better than condition than when I received them.

Now in a strange and unusual turn of events - and this is notable as a data point for the decline in the social cohesion in out society - I once looked after a neighbours dog when they went away on holidays for a couple of weeks. Let's be honest the dog was meant to be a fussy eater - which it wasn't - and it was also quite a smelly greasy dog. So that dog got to hang with the pack here and had a grand old time, eating the same rubbish vegetable mash biscuit stuff they eat. The dog was also brushed and by the end of the couple of weeks, their dog was a whole new non smelly, dry coated beastie. Now ordinarily you'd think that that would be a good thing, wouldn't you?

Well not so, because not only did I not get thanked for helping them out, the owners kept accusing me of washing the dog, but the smell and grease was basically due to the rubbish el-cheapo food they fed the poor thing. And now they put their dog in a kennel at vast expense in preference. Weird, very, very weird! If I were in their shoes and (having a curious mind) I would have asked them how they got the dog to be in that excellent condition so quickly, but all they could think to do was throw accusations. There is something in that for sure. What do you reckon?



PS: I've got a new blog entry up: Antarctic Anomaly. The title is a reference to the Antarctic Vortex which has descended with a thump on the South Eastern corner of this continent. Oh boy, it's been cold and damp and then very cloudy this week. It is a very unusual and extreme but not unprecedented weather event, just wow, it's just well, extreme! The new chicken shed is coming along nicely. And I fess up to all of the many failures with the old chicken enclosure, so people if you want to learn about how not to build a chicken run and pen - this is your chance. All in simple English with explanations and lots of cool photos.

John Michael Greer said...

Patricia, I'm in an interesting situation here. I enjoy cities, and I enjoy rural country; I can't stand suburbs!

Stein, notice how you've taken "civilized" and "barbarous" and redefined them in a radically different way. I don't accept your definitions; if anything, barbarian societies tend to be meticulous about the letter of the law, while civilized societies cheat. Take the United States and the Native American tribes as an example. Which one kept their side of all those treaties? Not the civilization...

Patricia, do keep working on that novel!

Raven, thanks for the link!

Steve, good. I'll be talking about that next week.

Toomas, I'll consider it. I think it's less a matter of two kinds of city, though, as a spectrum that extends across a very broad range.

Travis, fascinating. I wonder what happened to the old-fashioned cottage garden, where plants grew all anyhow and a rose springing up somewhere unexpected was a good thing and not a "weed"...

Kyoto, thanks for the tip! I've liked some of Davis' other work, so will keep an eye out for this one.

John, the double meaning in the definition -- "barbarian" meaning both "less civilized" and "more violent" -- is exactly the point I want to challenge.

Rabbter, you're getting closer. Stay tuned!

Onething, precisely! A good cogent summary of a crucial point, well worth this evening's gold star.

WW, okay, that makes a great deal more sense; thank you for clarifying -- and yes, it's precisely those who insist that human intelligence has no built-in flaws who are most likely to be tripped up by those very same built-in flaws.

Patricia, exactly. Most people think the word "natural" means "whatever I grew up with."

Denys said...

The thing about reading the ADR each week and all the comments, then ruminating on all of it, it makes going out into the world outside my community very unsettling. It is as if I am finally wearing the right prescription for my glasses. No scratch that. It's as if I was blind and deaf and then had both those senses restored. All that is written here is so obvious if one is paying attention. Must be why we continually divert our attention with screens and news stories - to really look upon what is there would be too uncomfortable, too real.

A dear friend ask me to join her in a consulting business. After three weeks, only working at it part time, I am frustrated beyond belief. People are so caught up their illusions and working to make themselves look good on email, linked in, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, and oh yeah, in person, that no freakin work gets done. I can get their focus for about ten minutes, but not all in a row. I can't figure out when the actual work happens because all I see is talking and typing.

Thank you for writing what you write and posing the difficult questions and thoughts you do. I feel ahead of the curve and definitely saner than most. I can see now that I must do something with this awareness and knowledge.

Thank you to all the commenters here and over at Green Wizards. I feel better about the world just knowing you all are in it somewhere.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Google image search for "squamous paw" brings up all sorts of horror. I wouldn't be able to write at all if something like that was on my shoulder!

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, I will say something which I think you are getting at. The way I understood what you said is that a human society can be civilized, yet primitive in its technology - the example you used, the aboriginals, are, for that matter, civilized, since they do not use technology but have an extremely intricate culture. Our own civilization also has a very complex culture, but combined with technological complexity. If that's correct, then the point I think you are going to make is that dark ages are the result of the failure of technological complex societies, and not a natural endpoint of civilization per se. You see, all the dark age periods you mentioned over your essays happened after the collapse of technologically complex societies - societies that overshoot their resource base. Non-technological civilizations, such as the aboriginals, cannot collapse, and, therefore, cannot give rise to barbarism. Thoughts?

Zara O'Rourke said...

Thank you for another very interesting article! I've only recently discovered your blog, but I've been reading quite a few of your older articles and I find your descriptions of the collapse of industrial civilization to be quite enjoyable (if that's the word I'm after).

I notice you've had quite a focus on the effects this will have on America, which is only fair, what with you being American; everyone has some bias!

I'd be interested in reading anything you had to say about what could happen to countries other than America - particularly New Zealand, where I'm from. (Oh, look, I'm biased too...) Although any descriptions about the future of America's "satellite states" would be interesting and welcome.

We've got an interesting situation where we owe economic allegiance to both America and China, with a quarter of our small population crammed into one city surrounded by coastline.

I can foresee it not going well for us. Any thoughts?

Pinku-Sensei said...

@Mister Roboto "Pinku-sensei: This has always been Pluto's theme for me."

Thanks for that video. Now I know what to use for next year's Music for the Revenge of the Sixth!

P.S. If you're from Milwaukee, do you read escapefromwisconsin's blog, The Hipcrime Vocab? He's also from your area and he sometimes comments here.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Continuing to think about defining 'civilization', I consider the problem hard, in the sense in which the problem of defining 'art' is hard. (What are two critics disagreeing over, when the one calls some earnest, vaguely pre-Raphaelite Victorian town-hall mural a piece of art, while the other says, 'No, this is not art, not even second- or third-rate art; it is, rather, decoration'?)

I continue to note sympathetically the admonition from poster "L Stein", that (to quote again) It's possible for a city to be barbarian, so to speak; just as much as it is possible for nomads to be civilized when tribal laws are clear and fairly exercised.

It would be a superficial development of terminology to count any representational painting as, by definitional fiat, a 'work of art'. And yet it would also be a superficial development of terminology to exclude from the 'art' domain, by mere definitional fiat, any representational painting which was (for instance) a piece of commercial advertising. However the term 'art' is to be developed semantically, it must at any rate be possible to debate the question whether a rather odd sentimental Norman Rockwell-idiom 1929 oil-on-canvas, just found in Aunt Mavis's attic - that sentimental oil, with its crassly intrusive advertising slogan running along the lower edge, and commissioned by Mavis's family to promote their modest seaside hotel - rises to the dignity of (minor) art.

However we develop the semantics of the term 'civilization', we must analogously leave questions such as the three following open to debate and discussion. It would be a mistake to close them off, whether affirmatively or negatively, through mere definitional fiat (as we would if, for instance, we ruled that all and only city-building societies are civilizations, or indeed if we in a more kindly spirit ruled that all and only tolerant societies are civilizations):

(1) Did ancient Israel possess a civilization in its pre-urban, nomadic, period, when law was in the hands of its primitive "judges" rather than of its later "kings"?

(2) Was there a Great Plains civilization before the arrival of the Europeans?

(3) Did any European states dismantle civilization within their borders during the late 1930s?


www dot metascientia dot com

Candace said...

Even with definitions of "Civilization" and "Barbarian".  It's hard to separate the words from their "warm/fuzzy", "Cold/prickly" content.

I have to admit I tend to see "civilized" in relation to physical hygiene.   Primarily in the realm of disease prevention.  I think of a place as civilized if it has access to clean water and air and in particular can dispose of waste in a manner that does not allow for the transmission of disease.  My definition of "barbaric" is being forced to live in a place with open trenches for sewers.

It seems odd to me though that any human should feel all that separated from nature and feeling they have mastery over it.  One good case of a stomach virus ought to convince a person that they are not in charge of nature.  My biology is always in charge.  It is most definitely a force of nature ;-). I'm so glad I have indoor plumbing.

latheChuck said...

Somewhere (who knows where?) I recently read that the urban man lives in a constant state of anxiety about where his "nth" meal will come from. The next meal may already be in the pantry, or maybe enough food for a week, but few of us would be comfortable being abruptly confined to our homes for two weeks without bringing in more food... and the water situation is even more acute. The supply chains are too long to comprehend, and without comprehension, they cannot be trusted. The urban man depends on the market, the broker, the warehouse, the buyer, the farmer, the seed-seller, the supplier of fuel for the farm equipment, the banker who either holds the farmer's profit from year to year, or extends credit between the sowing and the reaping. "So far, so good" is the best we can say about next year's supply.

And, MAN, has this been a great year for my tomato plants! Over 7 lbs, from just four plants, so far, and it looks like they're just getting started. (Might be the compost, but probably more due to the rain, here near Washington DC.)

John N. said...

JMG, Scotlyn,

Speaking of James C. Scott, have you read his Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed? Venkatesh Rao summed up Scott's term "authoritarian high modernism" nicely:

"-Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
-Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
-Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
-Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
-Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
-Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
-Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly"

Another title this post reminds me of is Thorsten Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class. I believe he coined "conspicuous consumption", and John Kenneth Galbraith was a fan. He had much to say about "savage", "barbarian", and "civilized" societies. In addition to satirizing 19th century American consumer habits, he made the case that much of economic behavior is best understood as a vestige of barbarian culture.

Dagnarus said...

I would suggest that one of the strengths and weaknesses of "civilization" is that it manages to successfully bind much larger numbers of people into a single project. This allows the civilization to achieve a march larger degree of specialization where thinkers,artisans,labourers, and farmers can each focus on there allotted tasks and depend upon the civilizations economy to provide for what they don't produce. My impression is while there is such specialization within barbarian cultures it is not to the same degree, with comparitively far less reliance on trade from outside a tribal unit. The weakness here is that the utimately everybody in the civilized system is much more dependant on everybody else, and thus everybody in the civilized system is more constrained by everyone else. For example if we look at the Greek crisis, one might wonder why they don't simply walk away from the table and go there own way, ultimately they are constrained by the fact that they rely on imports just to survive (they apparently can't feed themselves) and it could ultimately take them something like 18 months to create the drachma and integrate it into the global banking system. I.E. greece is dependent on the people who wish to grind them into the ground. On the German side the only way they managed to convince the German populace to go along with the Euro was by assuring them that they wouldn't be on the hook for countries which got into trouble. This also led them to negotiate a system in which if Greece actually got a haircut then all of the countries which bailed out the German and French banks would have to report the losses immediately and thus raise taxes immediately to prevent them from breaking the EZ rules about the size of deficits. I.E. even if Merkel were competent she would likely find herself constrained by all the myriad rules and promises already made. In contrast it would seem to me that barbarian cultures are less heavily integrated and thus have a much easier time making changes in response to developing situations without having to keep in mind the thoughts feelings of people in the next tribe over. This should also mean that if one tribe goes bust/insane the other tribes can much more easily contain the fallout. That is until a civilized culture which is capable of generating a much larger output comes along and destroys them.

John Michael Greer said...

Myriad, many thanks for the data points from personal experience; I've never had the chance to deal that closely with someone who's been labeled "developmentally disabled," but such contacts as I've had led me to think that you're quite correct and intelligence is a much smaller part of humanity than it's usually cracked up to be. As for the hall of mirrors -- good. We'll be talking about that, in a specific context, in next week's post.

Fudoshin, while there's plenty of variation in both cases, by and large, I think you're right.

Twilight, exactly! The interaction between a civilization and its less technologically complex neighbors destroys both cultures. That's the process that results in a dark age, and the construction of a new makeshift culture from scratch by the survivors.

MickGspot, that's certainly one way to look at it, but in that case you lose the capacity to talk about certain features of human society I consider worth discussing.

Roger, exactly. As far as I know, all stimulus-based maturation processes work within a more or less narrow part of the lifespan: you have to be exposed to the necessary stimulus by X age, more or less, or it stops producing the effect.

Aiastelamonides, I'd suggest that civilization is a product of certain environmental conditions. When human beings get into an ecological situation that allows them to practice agriculture, and certain other conditions are present, they start building cities and developing the rest of what we call civilization. Once they do so, the civilization they build cycles through its lifespan and ends in a dark age, out of which -- if conditions remain the same -- another civilization will arise in due time. The fact that civilizations self-destruct doesn't keep them from being very successful during most of their life cycle.

Isaac, see my response to Andrew. "Hunter-gatherer" isn't a type of culture, it's a type of subsistence strategy. Barbarian cultures can have any number of subsistence strategies -- horticulture, nomadic herding,and small-scale agriculture all seem to work well. I don't happen to know of a barbarian people who were primarily hunter-gatherers, but that may simply be a function of the absence of records from more than five thousand years ago.

Elizabeth, good. The one difference I'd point out is that most Stone Age people were a lot better at using stone for tools than most of us are.

Toomas, but in that case you're redefining "barbarian" and "civilized" in terms that I've specifically tried to exclude for the sake of clarity.

SLClaire, that's one of the things I loathe most about suburbs: the fantasy of total control. Dmitry Orlov did a hilarious essay a while back showing that the esthetic of the American suburb is identical to that of the American cemetery; nothing must disturb the peace of those who rest there!

Auriel/Jim, Ernest Thompson Seton talked about that a century ago. If you want kids to resonate with nature, you have to teach them how to do it, and make the transition gradual and fun enough that they enjoy the process.

John Michael Greer said...

Brezelburg, fascinating. I wasn't aware of that.

Cherokee, I've always thought that Alfred Adler's psychology applies to pets just as much as it does to children. Adler found that if somebody brought him a child that was having psychological trouble, it was a waste of time treating the child alone, because the problem was in the family as a whole; the child was basically assigned the role of acting out the family problem, and if Adler tried to help the child, every other member of the family would pressure the child into resuming his role as "the problem." The dog's owners, I suggest, had assigned the dog the role of "our problem," and if the dog got well -- why, then they'd have to deal with whatever was actually wrong in the family. So they kept feeding the dog crappy food and kept you from helping the dog and interfering with their family game.

Denys, you're welcome and thank you. A lot of what I write here and elsewhere comes from a similar experience -- looking at a very crazy society, trying to figure it out, and finding some coherent answers in a decidedly weird assortment of books, from Nietzsche and Spengler through Jung and Adler to H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. If the results, as ladled forth from the simmering cauldron into weekly servings, are useful to others observing the same craziness, that's even better.

Dmitry, well, I'm guessing you didn't grow up reading H.P. Lovecraft. I hope somebody's translated his stories into Russian; based on what I know of the Russian literary taste, they ought to be popular there!

Bruno, not exactly. What do you mean when you use the word "civilized"? When I use that word, as I noted in my post, I mean "having a large part of the population living in cities" and that's all. Drawing a distinction between that and all the other baggage that's been loaded on the word "civilized" is to my mind crucial in making sense of the issues I'm trying to discuss here.

Zara, I've never lived outside the United States, and the last thing the rest of the world needs is one more clueless American making ill-informed generalizations about places he's never lived and peoples he's never met. If you want to see a blog of this sort discussing other parts of the world, why not start one yourself?

Toomas, I proposed a specific definition of the term "civilization" in my post. By that definition, the answers to your questions are simple: no, no, and no. The point I'm trying to make focuses specifically on the difference between urbanized and non-urbanized societies, and thus between human environments that largely exclude nature and those that don't. Dragging in a galaxy of other popular connotations of the word "civilization" -- especially when those basically amount to urbanized societies glorifying themselves at others' expense -- doesn't further the investigation I'm trying to suggest here.

Candace, as noted over and over again above, I offered a specific definition for the terms "civilization" and "barbarism" as used in this post, and I do wish people would notice that and not just blow right on by them!

John Michael Greer said...

LatheChuck, good. Notice that this follows from, ahem, the working definition of civilization that I've proposed above: having excluded nature, civilized peoples are dependent on human beings.

John, okay, Scott's just jumped way up on my list of books I need to read! Many thanks for the tip.

Dagnarus, good. In other words, the shift from depending on nature to depending on other human beings has its radical downsides as well as its advantages!

beneaththesurface said...

Working at a library in a sea of abstraction-filled pages, I reflect on the printed word and other symbolic forms. What is their healthy role in a society? As someone who is an avid reader and needs to write, I can't say have anything inherently against the use of abstraction. I think symbolic forms are advantageous and meaningful to a person and society when they facilitate greater connection of people to their own or others' experience in the natural world. But when abstractions (whether writing, or the languages of various fields such as economics, or digital media) become a barrier to the world of lived experience, or in complete contrast to it, they become problematic and disadvantageous to the long-term survival of a society. When our culture's symbols no longer describe the world in which we live, their proliferation is unsustainable.

Despite my love of books and libraries (at least those ones that still have enough books), I often need to get away from the printed word to provide balance in my life. As I once expressed in a poem, I find that a forest is a different kind of library. There is a different kind of knowledge I get from a forest that I could never find on any printed page. In a forest, arbitrary subject divisions dissolve, wind gusts away remnants of the known and I revel in that mystery, I become rooted amongst trees that haven't yet become paper or shelves, nonverbal language of many kinds speak to me. I'm not saying at all that literacy is bad, but when abstractions purport to be the world itself and more abstractions build on top of those existing abstractions, while the underlying experience that was the supposed source for those abstractions is lost, that is insanity.

Working in the children's section, I question some of the accepted wisdom about children and literacy, given my anthropology background. I'll mention one example: Only very recently have board books become ubiquitous. Even when I was growing up in the 80s there weren't so many books for babies. Now at the library we have a whole room of hundreds of board books for infants and toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that parents read to the kids from birth, and that pediatricians give out board books at medical check-ups. I question these recommendations, but as far as I know I'm the only one at my workplace who does. For most of human history (and also in many current cultures), board books couldn't even have existed; does that mean parents were inadequately raising their children for 99.99 % of human history and not giving them a good start in life because they didn't regularly read to their newborns? Even in literate cultures, children learned to read fine without being exposed to books specifically designed for newborns and toddlers.

I think it's essential, especially in early childhood, that humans have regular, unstructured, direct experience with the natural world before too seriously learning abstractions. I think the push to read a board book to a newborn is one example of many of how a person born into our culture immediately is immersed in the "ABC's of Abstraction" without being enveloped in the sensory experience that would give meaning and context to such abstraction. Isn't it better for a baby to learn using all senses about trees from spending time in a forest than having a reader point to a picture of a tree on a page with the word "tree"? (On the other hand, many young children watch television and other screen media many hours of the day with little other language exposure, so I suppose reading a board book is at least preferable over that. I wouldn't say that having a few books like these are all that harmful if a child is having a rich sensory childhood experience otherwise-- it's more the temporary phenomena now being regarded as a parenting necessity that I critique.)

beneaththesurface said...


In a similar vein, my dad, who is a science professor tells me the biggest difference he's seen in his students over his 44-year career is how little time they now spend outside. Most of his current students would react with horror if they were plopped down in the middle of a remote area for the weekend. But for him, his many childhood explorations in the hills, woods and streams were precisely what inspired him to become a scientist. How do these changes influence the culture of science and vice verse? What kind of science proliferates from scientists whose primary experience is only in the laboratory, books and other abstract media, and who didn't spend their childhoods outside exploring?

Stein L said...

Stein, notice how you've taken "civilized" and "barbarous" and redefined them in a radically different way. I don't accept your definitions; if anything, barbarian societies tend to be meticulous about the letter of the law, while civilized societies cheat. Take the United States and the Native American tribes as an example. Which one kept their side of all those treaties? Not the civilization...

Which is my point. And I make it by additionally stating:

It's possible for a city to be barbarian, so to speak; just as much as it is possible for nomads to be civilized when tribal laws are clear and fairly exercised. These days, we should ask whether we aren't allowing the darkness of barbarism to engulf the world, as various "world orders" put aside the inconvenience of predictable laws to achieve the temporarily expedient.

The world engulfing surveillance schemes we have come to learn of are one example of "putting aside the inconvenience of laws"; your example of how the power you term civilized dealt with the Native Indians is another.

We use the words 'barbarian' and 'civilized' without precision. Whether a society has commonly known laws that are applied fairly is one measure. People think of Vikings as barbarian - yet the society was ordered and had ways of administering laws that became templates for later societies.
Civilized versus barbarian/primitive/savage is a poor distinction if it is behavior we allude to. If it's degree of synthetic order and separation from nature, then that's another matter, but it requires a lot more study than the one behind the common use of barbarian/civilized.

Andrew Crews said...


I would argue that Hunter-gatherers before the neo-lithic represented the pure form of man and barbarian's as an ecologically disturbed mode driven by subsistence changes. Hunter-gatherer societies were quite natural and much more in balance with nature proven by the steady population density the obtained the million years beforehand.

I understand this is shifting the discussion, However I think it is important not to omit this fact as it plays into Hobbes view of the "nasty, brutish and short lives" of pre-agricultural societies. I am not saying your hypothesis is wrong just incomplete. That Barbarian's were quite far removed from nature themselves compared to their HG ancestors. I believe this is very important, because the attitude that "All" our ancestors were violent brutes is commonly used to justify violence in our culture, because it is "natural".

Also when discussing what is hardwired into human cognition I don't think it is appropriate to omit the form human beings spent 99% of their existence in.

Chloe said...

Hi JMG -

Well, you could make a case for reclaiming the words as simple descriptors, but the problem is that once a value judgement has been applied to a word it's very difficult to shake - and this one's been around for two thousand years. Perhaps we need new words? (In general people seem to find it quite difficult to think in neutral terms; either "barbarian = bad, civilisation = good" or the opposite. As the cycle of politically-correct-words-now-deemed-inexcusably-offensive shows, it's very hard to keep secondary meanings from creeping in as long as the underlying mental bias remains.)

Also, and seconding everything Andrew Crews said - the fact that it's a continuum and not a binary division also makes it difficult to appropriately apply two words.

Andrew Crews said...

As an addendum to the most recent comment, I would like to posit that the different subsistence strategy's between Hunter gatherers and barbarians directly affect the culture in health, violence and their relationship with nature.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All

Hall of Mirrors? I daresay most of us have had more than one of those conversations when we could not connect. These days I try to regard such regressive disconnects as firstly a test of my sense of humour, rather than of my sanity. Am looking forward to going down that road next week.

I had the good fortune recently to have what turned out to be a death-bed conversation that actually connected – which was pretty good considering a long history of dementia. (Parkinson’s, which meant in this case very stumbling memory, short-term and long, - comparable with near bottom-rung Alzheimer’s - combined until fairly recently, however, with being able to drive quite well). This exchange which depended on his perfect manners despite morphine up to the eye lids was in response to his enquiry and my genuine feelings about the busy lives of grandchildren etc.

As my responses above perhaps indicate ADR elicited what felt like many good comments across the board again this week. For what it is worth though, despite my boasts as a youngster that I read everything, I guess I did a body-swerve round H.P. Lovecraft. Neither was I a fan of the ‘gothic imagination’. I loved squids actually. But like Dmitry – see his book ‘Reinventing Collapse’ - I was able to roam and thus experience something of ‘krugozor’.


I R Orchard said...

The comments about the intricacies of Australian Aborigines brought to mind the observation that their "primitiveness" was actually a superb adaptation to a harsh land that can/could be rewarding IF you were prepared to travel regularly. Great swarms of fat juicy moths gathering on one hill, then mere weeks later turtles migrating up a river 3 mountain ranges away in such numbers you could walk across the water on the backs. He whole would travel far & fast must travel light. Hence they lived in humpties but built great cathedrals in their minds.
When the Europeans met them, they were as confounded as we still are with Dolphins and African Grey Parrots, so gifted them bullets, smallpox, VD and flour laced with strycnine.
In spite of endless episodes of Star Trek I would expect a similar reaction to interstellar visitors. If we can't comprehend fellow homosapiens let alone local sentient creatures, I doubt we'll make much progress with a silicon lifeform descended from a rock.

Cherokee Organics said...


Many thanks for the reply and wow, I'm slightly floored by it. But of course after a bit of discussion with my lady it makes a weird sort of sense. It is sort of akin to challenging the status quo, don’t you think so? I need to meditate on that idea and concept for a while as it has had a few parallels that are a bit close to home (my elder sister was a junkie and I was the only one in the family that had had enough of the enabling - everyone else seemed to perpetuate the situation to make up for their own inadequacies and lack of purpose).

Perhaps I fail to understand those general attitudes because Sun Tzu better describes my own feeling of seeking for constant refinement and yearning for learning which motivates me?

Incidentally I purchased another copy of the complete Conan series online today - it is the hardback centenary edition to replace the thiefed off copy.

Looking for the book in my library was like when my previously favourite beer was reduced from a 375ml bottle to a 335ml bottle and I was left reaching for the last 40ml and wondering what had happened to it? ;-)! The Tasmanian brewing company in response had to eventually bring back the 375ml bottle and the label contained the caption: "A tiger can change its stripes". The joke that they are referring to revolves around the now extinct Tasmanian tiger. However, by that stage, I'd had enough and went off and brewed my own - which was amazingly cheaper. Go figure that one?

Consider this following link to be a thank you gift for the eye opening response above and this link backs your conclusions in this week’s essay almost perfectly: Massive rise in Asian eye damage. Before people starting heaping scorn on our Asian friends, I believe that the rate of myopia in the US amongst the younger generation is approximately 50%. Just sayin... I was feral and reasonably unsupervised by my single mother as a child and pretty much spent a lot of time outdoors doing whatever came to mind and I will say that on Thursday I had an unexpected and unlooked for competition with a couple of engineers that I know to see who could read a very small font on a computer screen from several metres away. I could read the display reasonably clearly from about twice as far away as any of them and I have a decade or two of age on them too. Just sayin... Perhaps it is good luck but there are very few people that I know that are my age and aren't required to wear glasses or contacts.

I thought I'd also mention this Wu Tzu quote (although you are probably already well aware of that one given your personal journey): "Therefore, wise rulers who would employ their subjects in great endeavours, should first establish harmony among them". Wise words.

Also, I thought that you would appreciate some other words of Wu Tzu (who is now many millennia beneath the soil) and died because he perhaps over extended his reform agenda - despite the clear gains that he made for the prince:

"Men meet their death from lack of ability or unskilfulness. Therefore training is the first requirement of war. One man with a knowledge of war can teach ten; ten men skilled in war can teach one hundred; one hundred can teach one thousand; and ten thousand men can train an army.

An enemy from a distance should be awaited, and struck at short range; an enemy that is tired should be met in good order; hunger should be opposed by full bellies; the battle foundation should be round or square, the men should kneel or stand; go or remain; move to the right or left; advance or retire; concentrate or disperse; close or extend when the signal is given.

All these changes must be learnt, and the weapons distributed. This is the business of the general."

Wise words and very prescient for us all - even today.



James Fauxnom said...

The bad season for forest fires in Saskatchewan province (and much of western NA) this year has given us much to think about. Lacking regular fires the forest becomes built up with deadfall and debris. When a fire finally does come through it burns much hotter and so takes far longer for the forest to regenerate.

Barbarians everywhere must relish their role in keeping civilizations healthy with a good regular burning.

donalfagan said...

@ Brezelburg,

Your comment sounds like an inspiration for the film, Idiocracy. I'm not so sure that all dogs are light versions of wolves, though the one that chased my bike this morning was certainly not a noble beast. From what I've read, we humans owe a good part of our success to our partnership with dogs. (All for the benefit of cats, apparently.) Given the direction of other comments, it would be interesting to discuss whether hunting with dogs was a step on the path away from the hunter-gatherer.

CSAFarmer said...

A leson brought home to me, 'barbarian' does not mean 'unsophisticated'. Several years ago I was lucky enough to spend a couple weeks in Hawai'i, courtesy of a project with the University of Hawai'i on Oahu. The project involved creating a 2.5 acre teaching farm, to demonstrate organic and sustainable agriculture methods, and spark interest in a new generation of growers.

Agriculture apparently holds somewhat of a negative image for local young people, a holdover from the 'plantation'days and the abuses therein. This is not ancient history, I met people who grew up on these plantations, the memory is still fresh (and harsh). One goal of the project was to demonstrate that agriculture had a future and in fact was a desirable way to make a living, even in today's 'civilized' society.

I was invited (happily, from my cold January farm in Ontario) to speak to a mixed group of academics, students and local growers, about my experiences in planning, managing and marketing my organic farm. It was great fun, interacting with committed, enthusiastic people trying to make a difference.

I had time to tourist around, and learn a little history. I learned of a pre-contact geographic, cultural and spiritual division call the ahupua`a. From
The ancient ahupua`a, the basic self-sustaining unit, extended elements of Hawaiian spirituality into the natural landscape. Amidst a belief system that emphasized the interrelationship of elements and beings, the ahupua`a contained those interrelationships in the activities of daily and seasonal life.

Shaped by island geography, each ahupua`a was a wedge-shaped area of land running from the uplands to the sea, following the natural boundaries of the watershed. Each ahupua`a contained the resources the human community needed, from fish and salt, to fertile land for farming taro or sweet potato, to koa and other trees growing in upslope areas. Villagers from the coast traded fish for other foods or for wood to build canoes and houses. Specialized knowledge and resources peculiar to a small area were also shared among ahupua`a.

The ahupua`a was sustainable (at least for unknown centuries pre-Captain Cook), and provided for all needs - physical, social, spiritual - of the people.

I realized the irony of a group of very highly educated and 'civilized' professionals, with help from an 'expert grower' from several thousand miles away, trying to accomplish what had been successfully done centuries before, by a people who did not have the wheel, or smelted metal.

Gives me a little hope for my descendants, even in the dark ages to come a worthwhile life is still possible.

Kutamun said...

Agree with kdog insofar as " how well do men treat men " . From an antipodean perspective knocking the spare member of the tribe on the head so that others may survive may well fit this bill . Is this merely a survival strategy if it goes on for forty thousand years ? .. Curiously , i have lived among aboriginal people in australia , and while they practice sustainably with their own tech , if you add outboard motors , shotguns and nets they will catch enormous amounts and throw a lot of it on the bank to rot ; they will throw plastic bags or a baked beans can in the water no worries .. Culture / tech shock ? . I love them to death , amazing dry sense of humour ( see " 10 canoes - very realistic ) .

Have enjoyed Jung enormously over the years , though it seems most of his adherents are busy disappearing up their own proverbials assisting wealthy incorrigible narcissists like me in the bowels of major cities . For mine the next stage of his thesis is for the next generation of young Jungians to pick up the ecological baton of the roots and origins of his " archetypes " , which just happen to confusingly correspond to the astrological signs of the zodiac and the cycles and seasons of each hemisphere . All this is clear as mud though very spiritually satisfying and commonsense grist for the plebian mill . What else could the archetypes , angels , demons or whatever you like to call them have their roots in ? ..Staring at my unread copy of " Cg Jung on nature , modern technology and modern life " , edited by Meredith Sabini , and also Theodore Roszaks " person planet " , and " ecopsychology " , Frijtof Capra " belonging to the universe " , Tom Cheetham " green man , earth angel " , oh and dont forget a bloke named John Michael Greer .

Have been reading " game of thrones " this week and cant help but think the writer is some type of green wizard busy articulating the photosynthetic twilight nature of " the dragon times " . Curiously this work doesnt seem to have been discussed much on ADR , though it seems powerful . George ?

Renaissance Man said...

If civilization is not 'natural', then why do we keep repeating such an 'unnatural' pattern?
I cannot immediately call to mind any other species which, if left to itself, deliberately tries out new and 'unnatural' patterns.
Horses, for example, contentedly graze grass & live on open prairies & don't choose to experiment with living in new, different environments like mountains and forests.
Perhaps "civilization" is indeed a natural condition for us, as a species, but we're still trying to get it right and failing? Is that why we repeated the pattern? Maybe we are just starting to learn how to create a lasting civilization and haven't worked out the fine points, much the way a first attempt at using a hand tool is clumsy and slow, producing something crude, but with repeated practise, becomes smooth and easy?

Spanish fly said...

"Spanish Fly, true enough. Eight hundred years ago, I bet the educated people in al-Andalus used to tell people who spoke Castilian that they needed to learn Arabic, since the Castilian language wasn't suited at all to science and literature..."

Indeed, in medieval times, educated spanish men spoke Latin, but if they wanted to be called 'wise men' they had to learn Arabic (and living in moslem Toledo for a long time).
I would like to believe that a newly islamized Spain would be a popstpeak oil and postclimate chaos shiny civilization, but I'm afraid it will be like Yemen or Syria nowadays, or 80s Lebanon. Imported sectarian conflicts+old regional resentments+water scarcity=very ugly scenario.

Carl said...

Dear JMG, not related to this post but two articles you'd like if you haven't seen them yet. First from Esquire about the pressure climate scientist are under to not speak-out and go along with bau. Also good data on Greenland melting.

Second one is from the New Yorker magazine about the big earthquake that is due in the Pacific Northwest at anytime now. Fascinating.

Roger said...

JMG, not to beat a dead horse but this illustrates in a fashion your point about early exposure to the natural world. A while back my wife and I were in one of our national parks. Now, personally, I'm no mighty woodsman but I did grow up in a small town with water and woods and fields just a stone's throw away. And that's where I spent much of my childhood with my friends, all scratched up and sunburnt and mosquito-bitten. My wife grew up in a huge, crowded city and, while never having my comfort with the outdoors, did develop some appreciation for it.

Not so the family walking behind us on a forest trail one day in that national park. Especially their son, who I would guess to have been 10 years old. He complained incessantly that this place made him nervous and he heard that there were bears and what if they get lost and let's follow that guy (meaning me) because he looks like he knows what he's doing. My wife was annoyed, I was amused.

And the mother: it's too hot, there's too many bugs and horrors, she saw a snake. And ugh, the toilet facilities. And on and on. Constantly.

Constantly, that is, until a moose came loping onto the trail about 100 feet ahead. The beast went off deep into the woods not giving a second look. My wife and I turned back to the complainers behind us and said, "did you see ..."

They were beating a retreat. Way too much moose, I guess, way too close.

Yeah, moose can be dangerous. Never tangle with a moose. But never mind the moose. That family already had a high level of unease. Plus a kind of "cognitive blindness" (couldn't think of a better term) to all the sights and sounds and smells. To them it was all danger and discomfort and nothing else.

There's people that are just as "blind" but in the opposite direction: they try to feed cute and cuddly bears, wander off-trail and get lost etc.

Anyway, I wouldn't get friendly with a moose. We didn't bother the moose and he didn't bother us. I wouldn't get friendly with other wild-life either.

Boy, those city slickers. I mean, the moose DID take off. So, look and maybe learn? Nope, run like hell...

Roger said...

JMG, a greatly insightful post by Myriad. I had a friend, who was part of our neighbourhood gang, that was developmentally "slow". Or, as was said at the time, "retarded".

No doubt, he had problems. Aside from a heart ailment, he had trouble remembering, he had trouble judging time and distance for moving objects. Thus, catching a ball was difficult for him. And it took me weeks to teach him to tie his shoes.

I'm not trained in psychology or psychiatry so I'm not in the business of diagnosis. I don't know if there's an opposite to Asperger's. But if there is an opposite then this guy had it. In my un-educated opinion that is. He had a curiosity about people and he'd be in people's face, genial and friendly and engaging. For some people, it was off-putting. But not for most.

He had a record collection that I would weep over now. While the rest of us listened to the pop music of the day, he listened to jazz masters and country. For all his other problems he had a sophistication in taste and liking and depth of appreciation for music that put the rest of us bozos to shame.

I didn't know my friend the way that Myriad knows her twin brother. But I knew him well enough to understand some of what she says about the complete-ness of conscious experience.

After I went off to university I lost touch with him. He died at much too young an age in 1994.

RIP Jeff. You're not forgotten.

Andropos Nebulus said...

Not to quibble over whose mass murder is worse than whose, but Genghis personally oversaw at least one genocide, and depending on what you mean my "genocide" and "oversaw," maybe 2 or 3 others.

Sadly concurrent with Genghis was the amazing Southern Song Dynasty industrial revolution, that saw intensive coal mining complete with coal towns, intensive coke and iron production and amazingly good metallurgy, early forms of mechanization, early uniformization of parts and assembly line methods, "hockey-stick" style population growth, and unheard-of high levels of agricultural productivity achieved based on Chinese-traditional (and quite sustainable!) river-fertilization methods along with newly-introduced quick-growing rice varieties, and supported with wide diversification of crops, when.....

The Mongols destroyed all this, mid 13th century, with incredible military brilliancy and a shocking series of civilization-cracking mass murders.

Right around the same time they annihilated Baghdad. In a single campaigning season they killed more Muslims (by an order of magnitude maybe!) than Christians had in 150 years of crusading, ended the 500 year-old Abbasid caliphate, destroyed the 5,000 year-old canal network (leaving the region arid), attempted to cut down every tree in Mesopotamia, attempted to kill every human in Mesopotamia, and single-handedly destroyed the Islamic Golden Age..... for example they emptied then burnt the Grand Library of Baghdad. By then, 30 or so years after Genghis, they had perfected very efficient methods of genocide, complete with (enslaved) Chinese bureaucrats organizing logistics, establishing timetables, and computing tallies.

As an eye-witness put it, in 1258 "the Tigris ran black with the ink of the books and red with the blood of the scholars". Many Islamic historians put the direct death toll at >2 million, while others say the Mongols directly killed no more that 300,000 (already many more than the crusaders), and most of the rest just died of secondary factors like starvation.

Historical oddity: having destroyed two of the great world civilizations and at least one industrial revolution, the Mongols left back-water Europe essentially untouched.... although they did have plans for annihilating it, which went unrealized due to internal disruptions that started absorbing resources. Of course after a few centuries Europe ended up having its own industrial revolution.

So again, I don't mean to quibble over mass murders, but I'm actually not sure what our society has done that would impress people like that. Then again there were the moon landings and I guess the Mongols never sent anything to Pluto.

HalFiore said...

Sorry, limited internet today, so haven't been able to read all of the comments.

Is Conan the Freebooter, wild man from the north, terror of civilizations, and indisputably what we would all call a barbarian, a good model of natural man of the dark age inter-periods? Or have I misunderstood your thesis? It seems to me he is defined by a civilization and doesn't necessarily fit into the cast of dark age characters. By that, I don't mean simply that he is given a name by the civilized, but that he can't really exist without a civilization to act against. With no cities to enlist Conan into plundering other cities, he's just a bad, troublesome guy in the village who some other villager eventually sneaks up behind with a big rock.

I think I'm using your definition here, but could be wrong.

I can see that civilization is an undertaking that requires a lot of effort, resources, and, possibly will, so dark age periods would intuitively seem to be the norm. Those who live in those periods influenced mostly by natural forces, then, could be said to be as close as we get to the human in its natural state. That should be easy to test by looking at time in history occupied by civilizations and dark ages. I don't have a sense of a timeline. Civilizations are dated in hundreds or over a thousand years, and what are called dark ages are usually a few hundreds, but that could just be an artifact of what the historians are focusing on. They are, no doubt, biased by belonging to civilization.

Thoughts on what's natural arise, but I will save them for later... probably too later...

onething said...


That was a deep and searching post. Re this: "The aural analogue is the familiar "echo chamber," any setting in which ideas are unchecked by disagreement (let alone external reality) and so are guaranteed to become a race to the farthest reaches of absurdity."

It brings to mind the foolish decisions of isolated elites and the downfalls of despots who surround themselves with yes men and/or punish messengers of bad news.

You have drawn good visual images of the why and how people become crazy without the sounding board of something real to check their nonsense against.

It is interesting in that regard the lack of success I have had when trying to talk either a schizophrenic out of their delusion or a demented old person in the hospital who thinks they are at home. I say to them things like, don't you see that this is not your furniture? Do you see this bed, and that bed next to you - doesn't this look like a hospital room? But it doesn't do much good. So they have lost something, an ability to bounce their own ideas off of the reality outside their imaginal mind.

HalFiore said...

On second thought, I suppose anytime an area produces more sons than it has farmland to allow each a decent allotment, it will have roving bands of young men looking for trouble. Conan and Ragnar could come along in a dark age or a civilized one. Lucky Conan has lots of options and can just wander into the frontier of the nearest civilization, whereas poor Ragnar has to cross a dangerous sea in a small boat and make do with the slim pickin's from a bunch of slightly less savage Saxons.

Patricia Mathews said...

If "civilization" means "living in cities is considered the norm" (my extension of what's been said), then what do we call medieval Europe, which had great cities, but the manor village was still the norm?

Lou Nelms said...

Nature and nature's wild divergence selects for diversity. Biological diversity. Genetic diversity. Ecological diversity. Cultural diversity. With diversity came resilience and sustainability. Or, to Thoreau, the preservation of the world.

Domestication of species lead to civilized ways. (OK, settled ways in resource rich, riparian environments did lead to domestication.) To increase. To more. To less diversity. And to the instilling of a plantation mentality to which we are all kind of enslaved, by history and current reality. Capturing land and subduing it for mass harvest of sunlight. For the power of it. For the increase in numbers. For the gain. For more. The end is less diversity. Less resilience. Less environmental quality. And the passing of the threshold of sustainability for which we feebly and complexly compensate with more inputs of resources, energy and technology. Toward a global model of conformity. A cluster of group think.

It is the old story of the rise and fall. Of the Tower of Babel. And of Noah too. All of which we got all ass backwards to sustain the glory, the promise, the covenant of another rise. That somehow, instead of relying on the diversity of nature's ark, we thought we could survive on the few domestic species of Noah's ark. When of course, the real Noahs were hightailing it from the collapsing cradles of civilization and its hierarchies of military and god powers for the hinterlands where they could feed the tribe on the diversity of nature. And of course, we got the story of Jesus wrong too. The story of a second coming was for intended for man's reawakening to heaven on earth and not for saving our rears from the ashes after making this green earth into a rock of ages. It is all so ecological. The whole damn book composed by those who really did think the newly organized thoughts in their minds that came with the evolution of language and culture really did originate from outside their heads, from god. The book that empire and civilization ran with for gain and power. For the glory of man. Oh, yeah, we deny that too. God is an easy scapegoat.

I cannot deny many "good" things have come with civilization. But what of it is good and how much do we need? There are certainly great diminishing returns from our taking it to such an unsustainable extreme. I recall hearing somewhere that a population of 1 million people can sustain a small university. With that perhaps might derive fundamental health care. The development of small scale, appropriate technologies. But probably not arms, pesticides, cyber technologies, etc. The end? The divergence of cultures adapted to their local environments. Increasing the diversity of natural ecosystems. Harboring and nurturing biodiversity. Resilience. Hope.

Jason Heppenstall said...

A couple of years back, whilst working as a copywriter for a travel firm in Denmark, I was asked to write a brochure for a new tour called "Cannibals and Headhunters". Guests travelling aboard a luxury cruise ship were to be taken to see Papua New Guinea's most 'backwards' people - a tribe living in a remote area who - I was told to write - used pig teeth instead of money. They were naked, primitive, savages, and very photogenic, which would impress the guests' friends. Furthermore, male guests were urged to try on the tribal males' penis sheaths.

Everything about the tour was mocking and, after a period of angst, I decided to take my concerns to the company's new (much heralded) head of corporate social responsibility. Yet even he, a widely-travelled and considerate man, was surprised by my concerns. "There's not a person in Denmark who would give a second thought about this tour - your concerns are probably a result of guilt over your country's imperial past" he told me. This gave me pause for thought, because, undoubtedly there is *some* truth in it (such a brochure would raise a manure storm in the UK). However, I'm glad he spelled it out to me, as this was one of the factors that forced me to quit the job, so for that at least I am thankful.

If one types 'world's most civilised countries' into Google one is confronted with several articles that all list Denmark and its neighbours as the acme of modern civilisation. Not everyone sees is as such, though. The esteemed Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell recognises the disconnect, which is why his novels are mostly set in Sweden, but he himself prefers to live most of his life in Mozambique (to the bemusement of many of his compatriots). It's the same kind of feeling that drove me to set my book 'The Path to Odin's Lake' in Denmark and Sweden. It even got into the local press there recently and was roundly savaged (!) by critics. To steal your own phrase, I must be doing something right!

MIckGspot said...

JMG said re (Natural)- "MickGspot, that's certainly one way to look at it, but in that case you lose the capacity to talk about certain features of human society I consider worth discussing."

Another Thanks to JMG and commenters for being such great observers, reporters and teachers.

Ray Wharton said...

Druid Leader Defends Barbarism! read all about it. Sorry, that line came to my head with a chuckle, it is amusing to think of Spirit of the ol' Druids resisting the city folk through new incarnations.

This post has brought forth in me a bit of an existential crisis, as a fellow who has had a few of those I lean toward saying that this feels more like the good kind of those, though of course it is early to say. Last weekend I went out to no where Nebraska for a biodynamic plant breeding class, nice class but the impression that stuck with me was how nice the 'boredom' of Nebraska felt. Sure it is a giant corn plantation, which is relatively horrifying, but the lack of events, entertainment, and stimulation was felt as soon as I was amid the trees on this isolated little sensibly run farm. Nice cows too. Humans efforts to stimulate each other, clamor for attention are insane making, perhaps a factor to consider. It is a factor strongly felt by this hedge wizard. For the first time in a while I have been actively plotting my eventual escape from Fort Collins... though I would rather an economic decline just hush the entertainment scene a bit.

Living in Cities as a definition brings alot to my mind, first and foremost I doubt that exposure to artifice is in itself so damaging compared to isolation from, maybe not to say 'nature', the wild. What is a city after all? Oswald S. mentions that the form of a city varies much between cultures. The polis being a statue, with ancient Rome being dense by even modern standards and limited in density mostly by the technological suite of their civilization. Western citys project themselves across the land scape. Which form is more isolating from the wilds? How do various kinds of rural territories compare in their echo chamber effect? How much does the decline depend on the populations senility versus the elites madness? Or contra my doubt, is it the over stimulation by other humans more then the physical separation from the wilds that burns out the mind? Would that I understood enough to, at least, know what kinds of cities to pray for that might, even slightly, mitigate this effect. I have no power over the future, but may a city type less corrosive to the mind be evolved; for I have little doubt that the different cultural archtypes a city could take would have differing degrees of this effect.

This is juicy stuff, so y'all who want to quibble about the real meaning of 'civilization' and 'barbarian' please stop. Didn't you learn algebra "let X be 10" and "let civilization be city dwelling cultures"? This doesn't forbid X from meaning other things in other places, its ok, we aren't trying to destroy the other uses of the words, just borrowing it for a bit trying to reckon out a particular set of problems. Play along with the conventions of this monkey song. It helps to practice being free of a given set of emotional baggage from time to time, and it doesn't prevent you from picking it back up when a conversation that it is useful to comes up.

Myriad said...

@Roger, I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm glad you got a chance to have Jeff in your life.

My brother and I lost a close mutual friend just a few years ago, a Down's Syndrome guy our own age named Carl. His gift was social awareness and interaction, a skill set I'm remarkably poor at, so our friendship was mutually beneficial. I'd take him to an event in a town fifty miles away, and random people on the street would greet him by name and he'd ask about all their relatives whom he knew by name.

Did you know that the words "idiot," "moron," and "imbecile" were originally coined as neutral non-judgmental non-insulting clinical terms for different levels of impaired cognitive ability? That was a generation or two before "retarded" was introduced with similar intentions and exactly the same eventual result. "Retarded" was also a euphemism, implying that the abilities of developmentally disabled people were merely delayed relative to their age or the amount of instruction they've received. Unfortunately that's not true; while many can and do gain ground throughout their lives, some capabilities are out of reach for given individuals (as is true for everyone). Which brings me to...

@JMG, how significant a part of humanity intelligence is is a complex question. I do regard intelligence as one of many dimensions of human nature (it's right there between CON and WIS after all) having certain practical significance. As with any dimension, if you take a viewpoint that foreshortens all the other dimensions, then it can look like the most or even the only important measure. That's illusory, of course.

Ceworthe said...

Thought you might be interested in these photos of searise and article

John Michael Greer said...

A note before I get going on responses: I've had a flurry of people trying to insist that civilization means this, that, or the other thing unrelated to the theme of my post. As I noted in the post itself, the word civilization has a galaxy of definitions, most of them irrelevant to the issue I'm trying to discuss -- and the fact that so many people evidently want to talk about something else as loudly as possible leads me to think that I've hit a hot button. I haven't had this many people try to distract the conversation away from the theme of the post since I last pointed out that the internet needs to pay its own overhead if it's to survive in a deindustrial age!

That said, on to the responses...

Beneath, I agree wholeheartedly. I'm a lifelong lover of books, but I've often thought that I may have been introduced to them too early and too intensively; I've had to work very hard in adulthood at awakening my nonverbal capacities.

Stein, who's alluding to behavior? I'm not. I'm alluding -- or rather referring explicitly -- to whether people live mostly in an environment made by human action or mostly in an environment made by nature, and I said in so many words that most other definitions of "civilized" are irrelevant to the point under discussion. There are, after all, plenty of other terms for morally good behavior -- and that's not what I'm talking about, you know.

Andrew, you're still talking about subsistence modes. I'm not. As I pointed out earlier in so many words, I'm talking about cultures. I'm curious; why are you trying to drag the conversation away from cultural issues?

Chloe, if I introduce another set of words, in fifteen minutes they'll have been tarred with a value judgment, too. I prefer to confront the value judgment head on in order to avoid mealy-mouthedness.

Phil, I'm glad to hear that the deathbed conversation went well -- those can be so ghastly. If condolences are called for, please consider them extended.

Orchard, exactly. As for Star Trek, I've come to consider that the touchstone of popular self-defeating nonsense about the future: from the embarrassingly human aliens to the replicator economy, if it's in that series or its dreary sequels, you can assume that it won't happen, and that millions of people will rush to a squalid death because they insist it must happen.

Cherokee, glad to hear that Conan will be returning to your bookshelf. My guess is that he and Wu Tzu, once they got past the language barrier with the aid of some rice wine, would have had a lot to say to one another, most of it very sensible.

James, a fine metaphor!

CSAFarmer, exactly. In the terms I'm using in this week's post, "barbarian" means "living in an environment mostly shaped by nonhuman nature" and that's it. Sophistication or lack of it, like Stein's fixation on moral behavior, are neither expressed or implied by that!

Kutamun, angels, demons, archetypes, and the like could have roots in a great many places -- the universe is a very big and complex place, after all -- but nature is certainly one good place to start looking.

sgage said...

@ Myriad,

"how significant a part of humanity intelligence is is a complex question."

Oh yes. And to begin with, just how, pray tell, do we measure 'intelligence' to begin with? Surely it's not a scalar property - it is HUGELY multidimensional. I suppose you could say 'intelligence' is how well you do on an 'intelligence test', but holy moly, how loaded and full of presuppositions and judgements and other cultural baggage are such tests? How well is one suited to be a cog in the current iteration of the machine? How well does one agree with the politically correct judgements of the day? Etc., etc., etc.

An extremely complex question indeed - right up there with 'what does it mean to be human?'.

Bret said...

Sorry for (I think) veering somewhat off-topic, but I can't contain myself -- it's just that I'm dying to get your riff on The Ballad of Shorty and The Donald, though I know it's probably not particularly well-placed in the present diptych. (I feel like one of those peeps at the rail on concert night, calling out requests 'tween sets. Hope it's not too irritating!)

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance, notice that you're using an equivocal meaning of the word "natural." I defined my terms explicitly: a civilized society is one in which most people live in environments primarily shaped by human beings, while a barbarian society is one in which most people live in environments primarily shaped by nonhuman nature. Nice and clear, isn't it?

Spanish Fly, over the short to middle term, I'm afraid you're right. How long did it take al-Andalus to settle down into a relatively peaceful, tolerant, learned society after the Muslim conquest, btw? I don't think it happened overnight.

Carl, saw 'em both, but many thanks.

Roger, that's as funny as it is sad. People have to learn to make sense of nature, and if that doesn't happen, yes, you get bad cases of moose panic! Also, thank you for the story about your friend Jeff -- sorry to hear that he's gone.

Andropos, to begin with, Genghis Khan didn't destroy two civilizations; he conquered one and invaded and ravaged another. The Chinese and Arabic civilizations were both there long after the Great Khan was pushing up whatever analogue of daisies grow in Mongolia. Was his behavior savage? Sure -- but I still think he'd have responded to some of our civilized toys by saying the Mongolian equivalent of "You can destroy a whole city with one weapon? Cool!"

HalFiore, good. One point to keep in mind is that the barbarian warlords of the early dark ages are as closely defined by the imperial society they supplant as Conan was; they just come a little later, and their freebooting activities extend to sacking entire provinces. It's because of the old imperial society that there was a province full of wealth to plunder.

Patricia, very good! "Civilized" and "barbarian" are, of course, endpoints in a spectrum that admits a lot of middle ground, and the high Middle Ages are a good example of the middle ground.

Lou, yes, that's one way to tell the story. Do you think it's the only way that makes sense?

Jason, yes, that sounds about right. You'd actually get the same attitudes in upper-class liberal American circles, too, but they wouldn't be so open about it.

Mick, you're most welcome.

Ray, glad to see you also noticed the diversionary tactics. I'm waiting to see which straight-to-the-trash-bin post offers the most irrelevant definition of "civilization," so I can make fun of it at the beginning of next week's post.

Myriad, funny! I hear the rattle of 3D6...

John Michael Greer said...

Ceworthe, yes, but I'm at 750 feet above sea level and west of the Appalachian crest, so it's a relatively abstract interest!

Bret, I'll consider it for a later post. The upcoming presidential contest here in the US is shaping up to give new meaning to the phrase "senility of the elites," no question!

Myriad said...

Hi onething,

It is interesting in that regard the lack of success I have had when trying to talk either a schizophrenic out of their delusion or a demented old person in the hospital who thinks they are at home. I say to them things like, don't you see that this is not your furniture? Do you see this bed, and that bed next to you - doesn't this look like a hospital room? But it doesn't do much good. So they have lost something, an ability to bounce their own ideas off of the reality outside their imaginal mind.

That's a great point. It certainly does seem mysterious. I remind myself of how confused I can get in my own dreams, to sympathize with what they might be going through.

I'm also reminded of people who have neurological injuries or disorders that cause them to feel as if one of their limbs is not really theirs. This feeling can be so intense and persistent that physicians debate about whether or not amputation of the otherwise healthy "alien" limb is justifiable as treatment. (Further twists: knowing the rules that constrain doctors, some patients damage their "alien" limb in ways that make it medically necessary for doctors to amputate. And doctors, knowing that can happen, can sometimes justify preemptive amputation to avoid the greater hazards of such self-damage.)

It seems amazing that the sufferers' rational minds cannot deduce from the apparent evidence that the limb is in fact their own even if it "feels" otherwise, but that's clearly the case, at least in the medical cases we hear about. Their loved ones and their doctors must experience the same kind of frustration you've experienced. "You can make that leg move, and feel it when someone touches it. Doesn't that make it obvious that it really is your own leg?" Scary.

I do wonder whether either a true rationalist, or a practitioner of magic, might be affected differently. In other words, when and how much can the intellect and/or will compensate for disorders originating in more basic systems deeper in the neurological self?

Adam Schuetzler said...

I just finished reading "The World Until Yesterday" recently, which is very relevant to this post (at least as concerns the so-called "barbarians"). It's a sort of comparison of what Diamond calls "traditional societies" vs. civilizations, and a really interesting read. I strongly recommend it.

I wonder what it is that triggers civilization. Dark age societies are really unique in that they are by definition a break between periods of "civilization". It seems to me that the knowledge of past civilization, and the remains of that past civilization, tend to seed future civilization over a longer or shorter span of time. Japan's "dark ages" were certainly less severe in comparison to the post-Roman dark age in Britain.

Our current civilization is uniquely unique in a lot of ways. Despite Rome having major urban centers, most of the population was probably rural. The US today is 81% urban, Japan is 93% urban, in contrast Papua New Guinea is 13% urban. The degree of change in every direction is going to be off the scale when the current industrial civilization ends.

Fabian said...

John Michael,

You have given me a lot to think about with the last few postings on both blogs, and I have been developing several different trains of thought based on those essays and my own thoughts/reactions. As the old saying goes, “tis an ill wind that blows no minds”…

I did have a rather surreal moment the other day. I was reading at my favorite local coffee show. In fact, I have the big “Centenary Edition” with all of the original Robert Howard Conan stories. I was reading “Shadows in Zamboula”, which at least in this edition is the story that immediately follows Beyond the Black River.

The musical playlist they were playing in the coffee shop ended and the radio started playing gangsta rap instead, which is unusual for that locale. The quote from Beyond the Black River immediately came to mind. Between that and the gangsta rap coming out of the speakers, I thought “yep, we are definitely headed for another age of barbarism”…

I am still working out the implications of this post and some of the other recent ones and will no doubt have more comments to follow.

pg said...

Phenomenal post, as usual. Your writing is a joy.
In all this human mess, someone at The Independent found a bit of silliness from Monty Python that might help:

If this doesn't work try "Monty Python Football" by which anyone outside the US understands Football to be Soccer.
Gotta love the referees.

patriciaormsby said...

JMG, your reply got me thinking about Japan's suburbia. They are called "bedtowns" (inconsiderately of the wives who even now are expected to give up their careers and take care of the home) because much of the population commutes away during the day and only returns to sleep a few hours. These bedtowns consist of pleasant but appallingly uniform multi-gray little two-storey structures on plots of land so tiny there are no yards, and the plant life consists almost entirely of bonsai and other potted bits of vegetation, tended meticulously by the housewives. I lived in three such places before going rural, and can say I actually liked them (the commute is the worst thing), because there is one particularly redeeming feature. Even toward the center of the city, you find islands of nature with moderate to minimal human intervention. An example in central Tokyo is the Meiji Jingu shrine grounds, in which the original broad-leaved forest is maintained with a traditional level of intervention, which was not much more than clearing out old branches and letting the wind through. An old Shinto priest (my original teacher) explained to me, "It is the duty of humans as part of nature to go clear out the debris, cut the excess branches and help the forest breathe. That is our role in the ecosystem."
Each place I lived had something like that nearby with an amazing level of biodiversity. Moreover, the inhabitants often take extraordinary measures to protect such islands of green from rampant development that threatens to consume them. In fact, they have a special term for these places: satoyama Hayao Miyazaki's animated film "My Neighbor Totoro" gives an example of one, although it is rural. It was my involvement with one such effort in Tokyo that led me to become a priestess. By reviving an old, neglected shrine atop a small mountain, we managed to fend off a series of ardent developers and other ne'er-do-wells for over 20 years and finally get it officially declared a green area. Shinto has played a protective role in this regard.
This is probably tangential to the discussion, but it is an example of a different way of thinking in a vastly different culture about the nature-human interface.
The Edo period also provides an example of sustainable urbanization. We will never know if it would have survived the crisis of the mid-1800s, where various faults became obvious, if it had not been for America's influence. The results of technological progress were so impressive that it was hard to perceive the ultimate unsustainability. Until about 15 years ago, even I believed in technological solutions. Who didn't?

Fabian said...

@ JMG and beneath the surface:

If I remember correctly, Rudolf Steiner believed that children should not be taught to read until around the age of 7. He was also a big believer in the importance of hands on learning, play and nature as an integral part of childhood education.

Fabian said...

Eric Hoffer notes in his book the True Believer that barbarian invasions often bear a very close resemblance to mass movements. He points out that during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the actual barbarians were a minority and that once a barbarian warband invaded the late Roman Empire, disaffected peoples from all walks of life, from discontented aristocrats to escaped slaves eagerly joined them. The Huns were not the only barbarian “nation” that was a polyglot mix of every ethnicity imaginable.

patriciaormsby said...

Hot dam! I'm a barbarian then! Never aspired to it, but I kind of like it.

In fact, come to think of it, I know a Conan sort of barbarian, the Harley dealer who participates in the shrine community I mentioned above. I don't know what part of NYC he came from--Brooklyn, Harlem--but he has street smarts, which he uses wherever he travels. He is the one guy I wish I could drag off to priest school and make him our head priest at the shrine. A bit vulgar, but Shinto reserves a big role for folks like that: arashi-tama. At one time he and I were planning a trip with a bunch of Japanese Hell's Angel folks to St. Petersburg or Moscow to buy the nifty motorcycles they make with side cars, drive them all back to Vladivostok and ferry them over to Japan. A shame it didn't work out!

Candace said...

I'm having difficulty un packaging the terms you are using from the emotional reactions I have to them. So I will try re-reading your post substituting urban for civilized and agrestic for barbarian and hopefully I'll have a better understanding of what you are saying. Sorry I offended you.

John Michael Greer said...

Adam, civilization seems to emerge wherever you've got the sort of field agriculture that produces surpluses of storable food, in an environment that allows centralized control of bulk food storage. Within those bounds, it's pretty resilient, so long as you keep the normal cycle of rise and fall with recurring dark ages in mind!

Fabian, er, do rap singers live in mostly natural environments? if not, you may have missed one of the core points of this week's post...

Patricia, I wish we had that kind of common sense here in the US. A big shrine in every suburb would have made a lot of difference.

Fabian, I seem to recall reading that about Steiner also. As for Hoffer, I'd forgotten that he mentioned that -- many thanks! You're qute correct, for that matter; as I noted in an earlier post, the coming of a dark age throws ethnic divisions into the gods' own blender.

Patricia, why not pick up a horned helmet and a round shield, so you'll look the part? ;-)

k-dog said...

For two days I thought about your question and have many interesting thoughts which could have congealed in a long elegant comment that would have quoted a longish ancient Egyptian code of ethics with explanation. More precisely an ancient Egyptian code of virtuous conduct. I would have mentioned marbles in a tube and reminded you of your recent use of French history as a flying buttress to my presentation. There would have been some private insight and learning.

Then it all came together. Your question has a simple answer and it is only three words long.

"K-dog, fair enough. What will you do to help see to it that the Conans of the age to come share those ideals? "

Teach the young.

PRiZM said...

I get the impression that we're using the ecosystem toolset, and civilization and barbarians are two different species.

If that is the case, it's a very radical way of thinking with huge implications.. which are quite useful!

Civilizations are basically an area where a lot of human physical and mental energy is consumed, bearing a variety of fruits, the current being the consumption of fossil fuels to develop high energy technology.

We could take this weeks analogy, civilization and barbarism then, and say that civilization, as defined by current standards, are those who support and encourage the use of fossil fuels to develop high energy technology (and think it will last indefinitely) and barbarism are those on the outside (or trying to escape).

We could use this toolset to make lot of other assumptions, but my favorite would be to take the famous lynx and rabbit example. Lots of rabbits one year, the next year there are lots of lynx resulting in a depletion of the rabbit population, the next year lots of lynx die. A continuous cycle. Likewise with civilizations.. the faster they grow, the faster they consume what allowed them to grow, the sooner they die.

Many humans think they are above this. Yet civilizations continue to choose a path of unsustainability. Frankly, this is madness.

So does civilization = madness? JMG doesn't normally conclude that things are binary ... so I am looking forward to the next part of this essay!

Phil Harris said...


Quote: "In 2009, the rewilding pioneers Trees for Life released some wild boar into an enclosure at Dundreggan, in the Scottish Highlands. Within twenty minutes, robins came down from the trees and started following them. Their ecological memory was intact. When I’ve accompanied children from deprived London boroughs to the woods and rockpools for the first time in their lives, I have seen something similar: an immediate, instinctive re-engagement, the restoration of a broken ecological relationship. Once we have richer wild places to explore, we won’t need much prompting to discover their enchantments."

Phil H

Jo said...

@ Adam, as JMG noted, and I learnt in my undergraduate days, there appears to be a fairly strong link between the emergence of cities and the availability of a reliable food surplus - almost always a grain. Think wheat in the Middle East, rice in Asia, corn in South America.

Interestingly, as you noted, PNG has a very low rate of urbanisation, and this in spite of the fact that it has possibly the oldest known independent agriculture in the world, over 8000 years old. What it doesn't have is a grain of any sort. With no way to store a food surplus there was no way that a group of more than a couple of hundred people could have lived in one place without exhausting the resources of the local area - the other advantage of grain is that it is portable, and can be carried from the countryside to the city.

PNG has an incredibly sophisticated local agriculture, as you can imagine with 8000 years practice, but had no cities until the Europeans arrived.

And they were, quite recently, absolutely splendid barbarians. I grew up there in the 70s, and a war band of New Guinea Highlanders in full battle dress and chanting their war cries as they left the village for a fight was unforgettable..

I haven't been back in over 30 years, but I hope they manage to shake off the worst of 'civilisation' and revive and retain the best of their 'barbarism' before it is too late..

Alvin Leong said...

So who do you think today are the candidates for the new generation of natural-born barbarians?

Drug gangs and Muslim extremists are very much a product of urbanization.

Even Boko Haram, which hides in the forest, are rather urbanized, use technology, and prey on urban environments.

Former groups who would have been nomadic barbarians at the frontiers are powerless today. Tibetan and Mongolian nomads are being forced to settle by the Chinese; the same goes for native Siberians in Russia. Bedouin and Turkic tribes have undergone a process of urbanization for centuries.

Jo said...

I am reading the comments backwards, which doesn't always make for a sensible discourse, but just arrived at Jason's comment about the Danish tourism venture to see the cannibals of PNG... I have spent many years trying to make sense of the very different cultures I grew up in, PNG Highlands, remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, and suburban Australia.

What is fascinating in this context is that communities who live close to the land are always regarded as child-like by inhabitants of cities. It is such a theme of literature - country hick goes to the city and matures, grows up, becomes worldly-wise. Even if the country hick rejects the city in the end and returns to the country, it is a changed and matured person who returns.

So what is it that confers such super-power status on city folk, or city-nations, compared to farmer folk, or farming nations, like Africa or PNG? Is it that humans respect the hammer-blow of control over the environment that cities imply, but have no concept of the skill it takes to live within an environment? When Europeans came to Australia they declared it Terra Nullius, completely ignoring the presence of the Aboriginal inhabitants, because they were not seen to have controlled the environment in any way (ie, farmed, built cities or even houses), therefore they could not possibly have a stakehold in it. Yet it takes far more skill and knowledge to be a hunter gatherer or a farmer than it takes to be an average city-dweller.

Wouldn't it be more sensible to send a study tour to visit isolated PNG villages to find out how they have lived sustainably within their environments for thousands of years than to send Danish tourists? Well, yes, but sensible is not our strong point here in the city suburbs.

So what is it about our human built environments that is so important to us that we accord them such high status, and ourselves such high status merely for living in them?

As you can see, JMG, waiting for answers here..

Lou Nelms said...

John: "Lou, yes, that's one way to tell the story. Do you think it's the only way that makes sense?"

Thank you for your response.

No, but the story was my way, my continuing journey, of trying to reconcile my late adolescent rebirth in Christianity with my education in environmental science and ecology. Basically, Jesus got degodded in the process and fitted with an ecological crown of earth shaped by my interpretation of his ways of a zealot against empire in natural settings among the birds of the field and the fishes of the sea. I ended up looking at the stories of the bible with a deep ecological overlay. Along with the history of the rise and fall of civilizations. At a time when man was rapidly reshaping his thinking at the crossroads of empires with roots still firmly steeped with wild ghosts and earth spirits. Just trying to understand how the hell we got to this messy state. Where civilization hit the hard road. And whether or not we may still find our way back to the eye through the needle.

heather said...

The discussions in the comments about what civilization and barbarism Really Mean reminded me of those implicit bias tests used by researchers to determine if subjects are secretly racist, or age-biased, or gender-biased, or whatever. They put a term and a value judgment, say “African American” and “good”, on the top left side of the screen, and counterparts to those words, say “European American” and “bad”, on the top right side of the screen, and then flash a list of emotionally loaded words and pictures (‘terrible’, ‘glorious’) which you are supposed to sort by clicking under the correct descriptive headers. Then the race labels are switched and you do the task again. Supposedly it will take you longer to sort, and you will make more mistakes, when you are experiencing cognitive or emotional conflict over the association of “African American” and “good” if you harbor racial bias, even unconsciously.

My point is that it’s not easy to let go of deeply held connotations, even when the limited denotative meanings are clearly spelled out for the purpose of a given task (say, a post by an Archdruid). JMG, I’m puzzled by your choice of loaded terms like “civilized” and “barbarian” to associate with meanings that sound a lot like “urban” and “rural”. It’s almost like using “Christ-like” to mean “sandal-wearing” or “from the region of Galilee”. Even if you clearly spell out your limited meaning, people are going to have trouble with it. I’m sure that you, as a master wordsmith who is very aware of the power of words, had your reasons for the choice, so I’m highly anticipating next week’s post to see where you go with it.

--Heather in CA

heather said...

Related to next week's theme about connections to nature being necessary to normal human functioning: I was intrigued to learn about some research on a common soil bacterium that stimulates the release of serotonin in the brains of mice, and presumably humans. This suggests a pathway (not to say “mechanism”, in light of the past few weeks’ posts!) for the effect I’ve often observed of being in a better mood after a morning in the garden, and grouchy after a busy week that has prevented much outside time. This also hints at the idea that the boundary between "me" and "not me" is not as clear as it might seem, if I need soil bacteria to help my brain function properly.

Is dirt the new Prozac?

The stupidity of the title is somewhat offset by the quote from the researcher at the end of the piece: “It’s not clear to me whether the way ahead will be drugs that circumvent the use of these bugs,” Rook says, “or whether it will be easier to say, ‘The hell with it, let’s use the bugs.’” Hmm, yes, let’s see, try to isolate and refine the bacteria, kill and process them into drugs, sell them for wildly inflated prices propping up an insane “health” industry, or, you know, encourage people to go outside?

As I said, looking forward to next week.

--Heather in CA

Renaissance Man said...

Apologies for using 'natural' when I really ought to have pulled out a thesaurus. That was sloppy of me.
I understand the core of your thesis to be, first, observe that humans always modify our environments to some degree.
Second, we can picture a continuum of human societies, from cultures (labelled 'primitive') which barely affect their non-human environment at one extreme, through to cultures (labelled 'civilized') which have virtually eradicated all non-human features from their environment at the other.
Third, that between these extremes exist cultures (labelled 'barbarian' or 'dark ages') which exist with minimal effect vis-a-vis their wider environments, static or nomadic, who adapt themselves to the non-human environment rather than try to completely modify it for their own convenience.
Fourth, that these dark-age barbarian cultures are remarkably similar across time and space, whereas primitive cultures differ vastly, as much, or more so, as civilizations differ.
Finally, that in the rise and fall of civilizations, we abandon and return to this particular type of arrangement repeatedly.
Therefore, dark-age barbarian societies are most likely candidates for a natural or base-state human social arrangement.
I hope that summary is correct?
If it is, then I agree with your conclusion, but then I was pondering why we would repeat this cyclical civilization-dark age pattern if that pattern itself is not innately human as much as nest-building is innate to birds or dam-building to beavers? If not, then why would we repeatedly leave our natural state when other species do not?

Aubrey Romero said...

Archdruid, I have really enjoyed this installment. I must be striving to be a barbarian. I dread going to town and shopping for instance. I'm in transition I suppose, with my feet in two worlds. Luckily, there is a choice to learn and change. During times of transition, is there always a choice, or is that related in part to our modern forms of technology?

Oh, thank you everyone for the book and author suggestions. I am working to catch up on many good reads I missed in childhood.

Isaac Hill said...

Just saw this article, which might be relevant in imagining a civilization with a more balanced city-scape.

Mojoglo said...

To Kutamun and others who are interested in Jungian psycotherapy and archetypes, I would recommend the work of depth psychologist/wilderness guide Bill Plotkin (I mentioned him previously on JMG's other blog). Plotkin writes explicitly about discovering what your soul/place/ecological role is, and he has been critical of traditional psychotherapy for focusing on helping people adapt to a dysfunctional culture. I am finding tremendous value in his work. You can learn more about him at

Plotkin wrote in his book "Soulcraft":

"You can count on wild nature to reflect your soul because soul is your most wild and natural dimension. Nature gives birth to your soul -- and that of all other animals and plants on the planet. Your ego, on the other hand, is not born directly from nature, but rather from a matrix of culture-language-family. Soul initiation is often described as a death and a second birth. Like entering a cocoon, your first ego dies and later a soul-rooted ego is birthed, not from culture this time but from the womb of nature.
Wild nature contains all the terrestrial patterns of belonging. Every niche of the world is filled with a life-form that perfectly fits there because it was born to do just that. The wilder the environment (the more complex and diverse it is), and the more likely it contains patterns of belonging that resonate with your destiny. No matter who you are, no matter what possibilities you contain, there are forms and forces in wild nature that will reflect the nuances of your soul... .
Your soul is both of you and of the world. The world cannot be full until you become fully yourself. Your soul corresponds to a niche, a distinctive place in nature, like a vibrant space of shimmering potential waiting to be discovered, claimed, .... occupied."

Patricia Mathews said...

I have an explanation for this fuss about "civilization". You call it "Urban" and everyone else thinks "Urbane." That's because whatever we are, is the high peak of manners, morals, culture, and whatever else we value, isn't it? And We, From Here, we boast, are *civilized!* Not like those bloody savage Them, From There folks. Right?

Yet, the inner city gangs are Urban, to the point the term is turning into a synonym for Inner City Gangsta Culture. Even the stores selling styles to them and their wannabees attest to that. Yet, their structure, behavior, outlook, and even thsir music* would be easily recognizable by Achilles, and by Egil Skallagrimmson.
("Lissen up, vatos! A praise song for El Chato!")

Here's where Toynbee comes in very handy, with his "Outer Proletariate" and "Inner", and the alliance they make as the walls and laws crumble. Anyone with eyes can watch their trajectories coming closer as the Emperor armors his Car of State to tour the places where they live, and sits inside the entire time. So - it seems we have two categories that try to cover four; a single axis where a 2D one exists.

Which I think is worth a book. If it hasn't been written already.

Patricia Mathews said...

@Jo - as I recall the earliest known example of the genre you cite, the Country Mouse went back to the country, as relieved to be out of the city as his city cousin was to be off the farm.

jean-vivien said...

1/2 :
This week's post inspired me a simple line of thinking.
Maybe the abstraction from nature is building up because it does not require so much effort.
Relationships do require efforts, and as you pointed out in a previous post, abstraction can be an escape from physical relationships with the natural world, and offloading the efforts required by those missing relationships onto someone else's back.
Basically, abstraction from nature creates a framework where efforts become less and less important as the complexity of the civilization builds up and enables it to offload externalities onto whichever place happens to lie outside the limits of the civitas.

Ultimately, this seeps from the collective functionning to the individual level : since efforts and rewards make up an essential part of the lattice sustaining basic relationships, the inability to engage in sustained effort leads up to deeply disfunctional individuals, who miss relationships but lack the basic tools to form them.
A barbarian chasing away a fox pestering his sleep might have a hard time sleeping, and yet live an essentially richer experience than a rich Aquilonian sequestered in his palace with nothing to do.
To the Cimmerian mind, even Death is a palpable companion along the journey, usually shaping itself as a stab in the back. In Cimmeria, it takes concrete physical effort both to kill and to die.
Notice how I only used the masculine pronouns as a reference to one of the tropes of sword and sorcery and its lack of meaningful way of engaging women : our daily efforts can be misdirected, and the myth of the lonely hero probably emanates from that misdirection. McGyver must feel pretty miserable slipping into the cold lonely bed which he otherwise very astutely crafted for himself through devoting a lot of efforts bending a million paper clippers to shape up a bedstand.

Maybe because I grew up in a small family unit living next to large woods in a big old house constantly requiring repair, the meals were always a sacred time : no TV, and a well-rehearsed ritual creating the space for sustained conversation... That is definitely one of the strong helps that enable me to think in a structured way today.
Part of the tribal ethos rests upon the consensus of investing efforts into relationships and spiritual survival just as you invest efforts to eke out your material survival. Thus the civilized mindset is a Ponzi scheme allowing people to indulge in the thought that living without efforts is not only possible, but also desirable for them. If we want to reconnect with nature, we will have to reconnect first with the notion of effort on the physical plane and in relationships. This is where psychology and environmentalism both need to look towards magick, and read that Usenet tutorial about lifting curses 101.

I have just been listening to the Kunstlercast issue number 267 about the liminalists, and one of the themes evoked was that helplessness was our natural state and some people might exploit that to manipulate others.
It could be that one of the drivers behind developping complexities abstracting us away from nature is to enable us to be helpless, since we no longer have to deal directly with the physical natural world. This is not just something that one would want to exploit in others to her/his advantage, but also a curse we choose to embrace willingly : since the best way to vanquish your fears is to face what you fear, it would follow that enabling oneself to "fear away" from nature is a good way to avoid having to face the efforts required to sustain our relationships with the natural world.

sgage said...

@ Mojoglo

"Your soul corresponds to a niche, a distinctive place in nature, like a vibrant space of shimmering potential waiting to be discovered, claimed, .... occupied."

What does that even mean?

jean-vivien said...

2/2 :
Another message from the liminalist is that we collectively - or some individuals do, at the expense of others - delude ourselves into mental constructs which let us believe we are escaping from that helplessness. Maybe this is what the civilized mindset ultimately produces : toys for us to handle while we build up an inner tension between the toys we handle and our instincts to handle our physical world. That tension often breaks into devastating ways... What we resist or suppress can surge up to haunt us. Which is what "haunt" means, as the ghosts are not meant to exist and yet still do as the result of some inner tension which their efforts are unable to deal with.

To wrap it up, the first big paradox of this blog is that you embrace wide sweeping insights about the nature of the world and of mankind, but ultimately it always comes back down to the same boring old conclusion : "get off your butt and act out".
And the second big paradox is that the only way to make the repetition less boring is to actually enact it from the plane of thoughts onto the physical plane, and get off one's butt to do something constructive :-)

aiastelamonides said...


I may not have been clear. I understand how generally to account for the rise of civilizations. I meant that the observed success of civilizations contradicts the idea that growing up in a city creates some kind of self-destructive mindset (which is what I took you to be saying). The hypothesis I contrasted this idea with in my post is that growing up in any kind of well-established tradition leads to a brittle (rather than self-destructive!) mindset, specifically one brittle due to insufficient creativity or imagination. The high brittleness of civilizations compared to established barbarian traditions is a product of the inherent economic ricketiness of civilizations.

It seems plausible to me that growing up in a city specifically creates additional mental brittleness besides the common lack of imagination, not to mention non-mental kinds of brittleness that a civilization incurs. The kind I mentioned in my earlier post is brittleness due to mistrust, the inability to cooperate on the society-wide scale, etc. This has, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with exposure to nature.

Brittleness due to blindness to reality is another kind, and particularly its blindness-to-nature-in-all-her-obstinance-and-majesty form. But blindness-to-nature-in-all-etc seems to be a part of the general "senility of the elites," which appears to stem from the good old lack of imagination that all successful societies, barbarian or otherwise, are likely to ripen to. (This doesn't show up as detectably in barbarian societies because they are economically and infrastructurally less brittle to start with, at least with respect to the natural environment.) If, instead, it's lack of exposure that is the driving factor, elite incompetence in, say, political dealing no longer makes sense.

Fourth, there is the possibility of brittleness due to malaise. Perhaps nature-less life just saps the will to survive as a civilization. The connection to nature is not obvious, but it sounds plausible enough. On the other hand, it isn't clear that this actually happens to civilizations, at least not intensely enough to make a difference.

After reading some of your comments, it looks like you intend to discuss some combination of the various kinds of mental brittleness, rather than some kind of direct self-destructive tendency. I am eager to see what case you make.

Cathy McGuire said...

... the sort of induced senility that leads elites to keep doing the same thing no matter how catastrophically and consistently it's failed..
It has a name! "Mumpsimus" ;-P I found it in the dictionary when looking up "mundane" ...supposedly came from an old priest who wouldn't give up his mistaken Latin word...LOL... it has the perfect sound for such an insane POV.

latheChuck said...

Jo- I can think of a couple of reasons for the European "discoverers" of North America to describe it as empty. First, the native peoples had been reduced to something like 10% of their peak population after the introduction of European diseases. When they died, they stopped farming the land, and native vegetation over-ran the fields that would have been found cultivated had not the germs got there first. Second, when the remaining native Americans were found to be susceptible to gunfire, North America looked ripe for real-estate development, and it would have been in their commercial interest to pretend that the land was free for the taking.

See, for example: "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong". This is an outstanding example of learning to see through the convenient lies and omissions of conventional thinking.

Marlow Charles said...

Speaking of 'utter unpredictability' I had just finished reading up on the English philosopher John Gray and then proceeded to randomly watch a RSA video of his: 'On Progress'. He spoke about civilisation/ barbarism (and tangentially about one of my favourite short stories: 'an outpost of progress'. I was thinking of 'the Archdruidreport' whilst listening to Gray and when finished listening immediately opened up ADR to find Civilisation and Barbarism. (This kind of synchronicity is far from an unusual occurrence to my otherwise 'rational' outlook. I can at times be pummelled by occurrence after occurence and then nothing for months on end).

Gray's similar take may be of interest to others.

John Michael Greer said...

Candace, you didn't offend me, and of course you're free to use whatever terms you like -- as, of course, am I. ;-)

K-dog, then go ye forth and do that thing.

Prizm, good. Stay tuned!

Phil, interesting. British culture may do a less thorough job of eradicating a sense of nature from children than American culture does.

Alvin, barbarians in the city-looting, civilization-wrecking sense (which is not quite Howard's sense) aren't naturally born. They come into being out of the collapse of less technologically complex societies on the borders of imperial states. When you point to the impact of industrial civilization on less industrialized peoples, you''re looking at the genesis of the coming hordes. Here in the US, watch the emergent warbands we call "Mexican drug cartels;" over in Europe, that's spelled "Boko Haram" and "Islamic State" among others. As the global economy and ecological balances come apart, those will be reinforced by starving nations on the move, and Adrianople is not far to seek...

Jo, people living in every human society think that their society defines the right way for human beings to live, and give themselves high status for having been born in the right culture. For the last few centuries, industrial civilization has simply had the firepower to enforce its opinion globally.

Lou, okay, good. If that's the story that works for you, by all means.

Heather, one of the things I do constantly in these essays is take a word that's been loaded with emotional connotations, unpack it, and stand my reader's expectations on their heads. The changes I've rung on the words "progress" and "magic," to name only two examples, might be worth revisiting in this context. In the same way, I'm having fun with these two words, and with the automatic warm fuzzy and cold prickly reactions they produce, precisely because doing so helps unpack the unthinking presuppositions behind the attitudes I'm trying to challenge. By the way, you're quite right -- of course some Fortune 500 pharmaceutical firm is going to try to patent the organism that makes your body release serotonin, and then insist that you have to buy a license from them before you're allowed to feel better after gardening!

Renaissance, good -- yes, your summary is pretty much what I'm saying. I'd point out that many generalist species do, in fact, leave their ordinary habits and do other things when conditions make that advantageous. Rats, for example, can make a living in any number of ways, most of which have very little to do with the habits of their wild relatives. I'd suggest that civilization is an example of the same thing, amplified by a process I'll be discussing next week.

Aubrey, yes, there's always a choice: do you keep on living the way your falling civilization insists you have to live, or do you adapt to the conditions of the emerging dark age around you? You'd have faced that choice if you lived during the decline and fall of Sumeria, just as much as you do today. Enjoy your barbarization... ;-)

Isaac, interesting. I wonder how she accounts for the skeletal evidence of severe malnutrition in the Terminal Classic period.

John Michael Greer said...

Mojoglo, I like the idea of rejecting psychotherapy as a means of getting people better adjusted to an insane society, but that can be taken in a lot of ways, some of them no better. I'll see about making time to read Plotkin one of these days.

Patricia, excellent! Yes, that's basically the pattern at work, to which I hope to add another dimension in next week's post.

Jean-Vivien, excellent. That very intriguing meditation earns you tonight's gold star, which entitles you to get up off the sofa... ;-)

Aiastelamonides, the observed success of civilizations has to be weighed against the observed self-destruction of civilizations. Is a society a success if it crashes and burns, with immense loss of life and destruction of cultural resources, in a millennium, while societies that do something else can endure for much longer and cycle up and down a narrower range of complexity states without crashing and burning? I'll be talking about something a little more forceful than brittleness, although that's also an issue, of course.

Cathy, thank you! Mumpsimus -- hmm. That's got to feature in the title of a post one of these days.

Msrlow, I find Gray at once interesting, challenging, and infuriating -- all of which I suspect would please him. Like his ideas or not, he's worth reading and thinking about.

Revelin said...

Strikes me that the conflict between the wanderer (in nature) and the settler is at the heart of our collective human neurosis.

Doesn’t civilisation also mark ultimate human separation in a religious sense too – where it was once enough to feel the divine in a hill, waterfall, or tree, once humans settled it becomes necessary for some reason to build mounds and stone monuments and so on until we get the roofed temples? The etymology of heathen, before it acquired a religious connotation, was a derogatory term for those living 'in open country'. Interesting that city folk the world over have developed (and continue to do so) an arsenal of put-downs for rural people, far less so the other way round. Almost some subconscious self-hate thing going on there.

And if we look at cities as an extension of monuments, I’m wondering what it was that changed humans, giving them monumentality, what was it that made monuments necessary at a specific point in time? Archaeology says it preceded agriculture, so that wasn’t it. Perhaps the implication is that before agriculture becomes possible a certain mentality, a certain degree of separation from nature, has to be attained. And conversely, that the practicalities of agriculture become obvious once this state of mind has been reached. I've always been uncomfortable with the idea that hunter gatherers were ‘too stupid’ to work out the mechanics of growing crops/keeping animals – so did agriculture come about as the result of a new kind of consciousness dawning? The manipulation of the physical environment to effect a manipulation of the psychological/magical environment, which pre-supposes a shift in perception of the environment? If this shift was to result in organised stone-manipulation, I guess it must have been occurring in more than one brain at a time. But as to how such patterns would spread? And why then?

Also, I imagine my sense of harmony on the hills relates to a modified landscape. I think I'd be freaking out a whole lot if it was the original dense and forbidding forest. That also must come from somewhere, mustn't it?

I suppose I’m in the corner of the settlers, but my heart is with the barbarians.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Ray Wharton wrote, "The polis being a statue, with ancient Rome being dense by even modern standards and limited in density mostly by the technological suite of their civilization. Western citys project themselves across the land scape. Which form is more isolating from the wilds?"

In my opinion, the latter. I lived for twenty-five years in San Francisco. SF has either the highest or second highest population density of any city in the US. The city proper has only about 800,000 inhabitants; by numbers alone it would barely count as a suburb of the world's largest cities. San Francisco is built on a peninsula, surrounded by salt water on three sides, so suburban sprawl only extends to the south. The eastern portion of the city is hilly and the skyscrapers are concentrated in one section of town. As a result, people going about ordinary business in most neighborhoods get a look all the way out of the city to the surrounding ocean, bay, or hills every now and then.

A streetcar ride will take you to uncrowded, undeveloped beaches next to the Pacific Ocean. You can catch fish there, or collect sand dollars, or get washed out to sea by the riptide. To the east across the bay, another city with a fairly large mountain in view in the distance. To the north, a bridge that is one of the seven wonders of the modern world, often veiled in ever changing fog, green hills and another mountain. There isn't any wilderness in San Francisco, but there is plenty of nature to see, hear and smell. The city itself is like a jewel on the neck of a lady, beautiful precisely because of its artifice. It is not like cities that are so high, vast or sprawling that they seem to their dwellers to be the entire world. One experiences The City as something that human beings built within a larger landscape. Most cities that are not imperial capitals were once like this.

Jasun said...

Nice to hear Jean-Vivien's response to the Liminalist podcast; for those who don't know yet, I had a long and (for me at least) very satisfying exploratory dialogue with JMG last week which is up in two parts, first part here:

In the second part we talk about getting up of our arses for some reason besides chasing a mechanical rabbit. In my experience, accepting & embracing our basic powerlessness, means settling into the deeper knowledge that there's nothing that NEEDS to be done (ever, & not counting basic bodily needs, of course) before starting to do something! I suspect this speaks to JMG's idea of free will, truly spontaneous action. Before getting off the couch, we have to really enjoy being ON the couch. (Freudian pun intended.)

Ruben said...

@Roger, re: cataracts.

Do you have any sources on the inability to see, even after corrective surgery? That would be an interesting factoid for my work.

Thank you,


hapibeli said...

JMG said"the Arabs weren't barbarians when they surged out of Arabia"

Here comes those South of USA hispanics!

Cherokee Organics said...


Ha! I'd have a fascinating thing or two to say to them as well and would always show deference and respect (as a survival strategy).

Just had a small flash of insight with Alfred Adler's psychology: The concept can be pushed outwards into ever larger social groups (with obviously less effect as the group gets larger) as to my mind there appears to be a great resistance to challenging the status quo.

That resistance to change has always felt to me to be a bit odd, because often the controlling groups are senile and the arrangements that are put in place cause great hardship to some but not to others. The situation and memes are what we are discussing here after all and the source of the resistance is as interesting and worth exploring as the problems are themselves.

The other thing that pops into my mind is why would a minority of people adapt to changing circumstances when the majority resist change - up until the point that it can no longer be ignored. I've been feeling as if the costs outweighed the benefits for me since about 1991 when I had a very rude awakening from my quiet slumber! But then that is simply a value judgement on my part...



KL Cooke said...


"Isaac, interesting. I wonder how she accounts for the skeletal evidence of severe malnutrition in the Terminal Classic period."

Hey, don't mess up a good PC theory with the facts.

nuku said...

JMG: Here’s the latest on the “civilized” front: The Chinese govt has just endorsed building a super city the size of Kansas with 130 million people with Beijing as the center. Talk about a concrete jungle...

Pinku-Sensei said...

@JMG "I don't happen to know of a barbarian people who were primarily hunter-gatherers, but that may simply be a function of the absence of records from more than five thousand years ago."

Actually, you might and not realize it. Anthropologists use another classification scheme based on sociopolitical organization--band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. Mapping this classification onto "primitive," barbarian, and civilized has "primitive" peoples in bands, barbarians in tribes and chiefdoms, and civilized people in states. Cabrillo College has a good page on the subject that gives examples of Native American peoples at each stage. The examples used for chiefdom are the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, where you grew up. They were able to sustain large, complex settled communities by fishing supplemented by hunting and gathering, not agriculture. They're a special case, but they would be a "barbarian people" eating primarily wild food instead of plants and animals that they raised.

PRiZM said...

Off topic from this post, but definitely related to the theme of tADR. This post can be passed on for others if deemed worthy.

While reading news from my home region, I came across the announcement of a book release called "Within These Woods." The book is about my home region, the Great North Woods of Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Great Lakes region.. but it has a lot of connections to druidry and this blog.

There's an excerpt by the author which can be accessed via YouTube:

A line of poetry of the author, Timothy Goodwin, is as follows:

"In little tunnels
Safe from danger above
Below the snow
Peromyscus rules
A place in which we do not go
A world all to themselves until
Our machines and trails interrupt and crush"

In my viewing of the YouTube video, I could easily understand the author encouraging us to realize our place and connection with this world, and how much that corresponds with this blog. Perhaps it is no "A Sand County Almanac", but it is a piece of modern prose which may help readers to connect to their "world." And just maybe it can pose some line of thinking for the Archdruid which helps him in considering our connection to the world as he so eloquently and thoughtfully influences the thoughts of the many readers here.

onething said...

JMG said,

"while a barbarian society is one in which most people live in environments primarily shaped by nonhuman nature. Nice and clear, isn't it? "
OK, now I'm confused. I thought you were defining barbarism as the temporary reaction of groups in the aftermath of a collapse. So, does that mean you are considering HG tribes as barbarian?

PRiZM said...

Jean-vivien, JMG, and all,

This weeks post does present an interesting paradox, but one that is perhaps the underlying theme of this entire blog.

Jean-vivien mentions "This week's post inspired me a simple line of thinking.
Maybe the abstraction from nature is building up because it does not require so much effort.
Relationships do require efforts, and as you pointed out in a previous post, abstraction can be an escape from physical relationships with the natural world...

I'm not by any means an avid reader, but I do enjoy reading narratives, especially when they can have some meaning in my life. Once I read a book about barefoot running called "Born to Run". The argument was made that our ability to run long distance efficiently was perhaps what set humans apart from monkeys, and thus what in the long run made us what we are today. This need to accomplish things efficiently however, has helped us to develop our technology, allowing us to become lazier and lazier even if this leads to poor health, illness, and death. So ultimately, this efficiency paradox which set is apart from other primates is perhaps leading to our destruction.

While this may, or may not be the case, it did get me thinking about paradoxes. The ultimate paradox may be that all life is lived in order to die. Each and everything exists for just a brief moment in time. Our connection with time can be lengthened if we procreate, leaving behind children and thus our species. And within our children we leave behind not just our genetic legacy, but also the legacy of our minds, and this is where I think civilizations come in.

The longer lasting civilizations I think have all at some point realized the great paradox of life, and thus a key that in order for the civilization (and all that comes with civilization) to survive, death must be embraced and realized as inevitable, and that we must get down to business passing along and saving information and wisdom to our children that they and those we come later may survive in the best possible way. And ultimately, I have found that to be the biggest theme of all from this blog, to preserve tidbits of useful information from this period in time to help the legacy of humankind in the future.

Andropos Nebulus said...

" but I still think he'd have responded to some of our civilized toys by saying the Mongolian equivalent of "You can destroy a whole city with one weapon? Cool!" "

He would likely be confused by our restraint.

Fabian said...

@ Mojoglo and JMG:

Jiddu Krishnamurti once said: "To be well adjusted to a sick society is no sign of health". Truer words were never spoken...

Andropos Nebulus said...

Yes, you are right to say "Genghis Khan didn't destroy two civilizations." Indeed the Mongols no more ended those civilizations than the sack(s) of Rome ended Western civilization. I was exaggerating. But what I would say is that Genghis and his kin put a certain exclamation point at the end of the cycles of several civilizations. That's the kind of thing we're discussing here, no?

China recovered its high culture (whose roots, even then, were millennia-deep), with the Yuan achieving a surprisingly enlightened leadership not long after the conquest period.

But there is a strong argument to be made that Islamic civilization---in the 13th c. just 5 c. old but very high among the world's scientific, philosophical, and literate cultures---never recovered from the blow, and it's been argued, not unreasonably, that the fallout is still being dealt with. It is difficult to overstate either the bloodiness or the world-historical significance of those 13th c. steppe nomads.

Fabian said...

Speaking of Jim Kunstler, have you seen his latest?

Fabian said...

"One of the themes evoked was that helplessness was our natural state and some people might exploit that to manipulate others"

I don't believe that helplessness is our natural state at all. Far from it. Rather we are socialized to believe that by governments, big business, public school systems, the mass media and so on. It's called "learned helplessness", much like rats in a cage who have been subjected to electric shocks so many times they give up and simply lay there and suffer passively without attempting to escape. Civilized societies tend to breed learned helplessness en masse, which is one of the reasons why civilizations in their later stages tend to be filled with the sort of "hothouse flowers" alluded to by another commenter from last weeks post, people who cannot survive without the elaborate superstructures that civilization makes possible.

Of course the powers that be want us to believe that helplessness is our natural state because it’s easier to control and manipulate people if you can convince them of that, but it's a lie, pure and simple. Maggie Thatcher famously said TINA (There Is No Alternative), as a justification for the policies she and her backers were trying to ram through, but that was nothing but an exercise in political thaumaturgy that was used to justify some very destructive policies that favored the rentier class, the financial sector and the transnational corporations at the expense of the British people.

Like Conan the Cimmerian and the other great heroes of literature and real life, I choose to take action and do what I believe is right, not wallow in a state of learned helplessness and self-pity. One of America's greatest presidents, Andrew Jackson, once said "one man with courage makes a majority". My "inner barbarian" speaks, and I choose to listen...

Andropos Nebulus said...

Plus one would think there is some significance to the destruction of the material culture of Song China. With its nascent factories, nascent coal economy, and widespread wage-labor, many people before me have called it an industrial revolution. Had it evolved naturally, might an Eastern culture have obtained global preeminence in the ensuing centuries? I suppose there's no way to know.

onething said...


I'm pretty sure noncivilized cultures also realize the paradox of life and teach their children wisdom and informatin.

james albinson said...

Civilisation: More books than I can carry on my back (many, many more!)?

Roger said...

Hi Ruben, Unfortunately the source for this issue of blindness early in life and subsequent corrective surgery is lost in the sands of time. It's been decades and I can't remember.

You've probably thought of this and done it already but I would suggest a google search to see what pops up. Maybe there's something out there that would suit your needs.

dry toasts said...

@ Jason Heppenstall & everyone

Had to laugh perversely re: Jason's anecdote about his job with the travel

agency. Jason & others may get some wry appreciation out of Dennis O'Rourke's

stunning 1980s documentary "Cannibal Tours," which looks at exactly that sort of

vapid ecotourism in Papua New Guinea.

The film is a scathing indictment and a pretty adept little bit of layered

anthropology... deliciously objectifying the European tourists on their made-

to-order "heart of darkness" jaunts as they themselves objectify the Papua New

Guineans. It's painful, darkly funny, grating, charming, devastating... I have

to watch parts of it through my fingers.

a short clip:

the film used to be rare as all get-out when I was in school, but i see that,

for the moment anyway, the whole thang is on youtube:

- - - - -

@ Myriad & Roger

Thanks to you both for sharing your poignant stories. The history of

imbecile/moron/et al (which were used to correspond to specific IQ ranges, as

Myriad indicated) is a favorite sociohistorical/etymological curio. In

linguistics we call that process of semantic change "pejoration" and it seems to

happen incredibly fast when taboo or culturally sensitive issues are in play,

since everything quickly becomes euphemistic. But the half-life of a media-

saturated euphemism is absurdly short... before long it has all its original

negative connotations firmly back in place. Stephen Pinker helpfully coined the

phrase "euphemism treadmill" to describe the relentless upgrading we have to do

to keep up with political correctness (idiot/imbecile/moron --> retarded/spastic

--> challenged, special needs, etc)... the vividness of that phrase seems to

makes the process immediately grokkable

(so although he seems increasingly to embody a kind of noxious hubris that must

make many ADR readers cringe, i gotta say thanks pinker, for that particular

nugget. and thanks too, dawkins, for "meme," but for nothing else.)

Raymond Duckling said...

@james albinson

More like: "Civilization: more stories than I can carry in my skull".

Renaissance Man said...

This particular topic is important to me because of a nagging question posed 40+ years ago in grade school as to whether Australian Aborigines are civilized. As the class grasped for things-civilizations-have-but-primitives-do-not we quickly found the answer is almost nothing. Pretty much everything we have is apparently only qualitatively different from what hunter-gatherers have. Modes of travel, means of gaining food, clothing, shelter, &c.
The question was left hanging.
It stuck in my brain for years, as I periodically revisited it until I concluded that the what separates 'civilized' from 'primitive' is engineering. Engineering which requires complex mathematics and produces complex tools and goods out of materials other than finely chipped stone & branches, and also produces the monumental architecture that we associate with 'civlization'.
But I still wasn't entirely satisfied, because that left hanging the question of why civilizations always fail after a thousand years or so? And if civilizations only last a thousand years, then how does that compare with hunter-gatherer societies that have existed for tens of thousands? Not well.
We achieve relative security from the vagaries of natural disasters (Pompeii notwithstanding) to which primitive cultures are vulnerable. We also know of whole tribs that were wiped out overnight by disease or natural disasters. Civilization protects its widespread members much better.
Yet civilizations always overshoot their resource base. I've concluded this is because there is no built-in flywheel to keep things from tearing themselves apart.

Renaissance Man said...

I have also been fascinated by barbarian/dark ages, because I went to an archaeological dig on a pre-roman celtic burial in southern Germany in 1981 and was allowed to carefully brush off and discover a belt-buckle that was last seen over 2000 years ago... wow...
Cleaned up, the beauty and craft of these burial items is astounding and I began to suspect that barbarians were somewhat more talented and capable than the grunting savages as portrayed by Rome & later by Christian monks. The mismatch between object and portrayal was too much to gloss over. Since then, even professional archaeologists and historians have also begun to question the whole barbarians-as-inferior-savages thesis and questioned whether the dark ages were as unremittingly horrible as popularly depicted.
My own conclusion is that we want creature comforts something above leaky mud huts but do not really need congested megalopolis. Small cities of about 10,000 seem to be the apex of real creativity and genius, and allow enough freedom from the constrictions of small tribal villages, but we never stop there.
I am convinced by the arguments of Henry George that we allow resources to be monopolized by a few without adequate compensation, and if we did, that would provide that flywheel brake on runaway expansion. I'm guessing, though, that you have a particular idea as to why this need to overshoot resources is so predictable?

FiftyNiner said...

The mention of Henry George by Renaissance Man made me think of asking you to comment on "Georgism" or the single tax system as it is sometimes called. I must admit that it is appealing on its face, but I think the devil would be in the details in converting from the idiocy of a tax system that we have now to something so simple. Also, the places where it was tried--most notably Fairhope, Alabama--cannot be held as unqualified successes. Also, if the Roberts Court definition of corporations as "people" was superimposed on such a system, wouldn't that subvert the whole process and put us right back to where we are now?

donalfagan said...

Last night PBS showed Humanity From Space:

I was curious because it presents about the opposite message of what JMG presents here, but it was so vapid I only watched for about ten minutes.

"From the global perspective of space, this 2-hour special reveals the breathtaking extent of our influence, revealing how we’ve transformed our planet and produced an interconnected world of extraordinary complexity.

A journey through 12,000 years, Humanity from Space shows how seemingly small flashes of innovation have changed the course of civilization; innovations that touch all of us today in ways unimaginable to our ancestors. And we’ll gaze into the future at the new challenges we’ll face in order to survive as our global population soars because of our success. In every case we’ll look at our progression in a unique and surprising way, revealing unforgettable facts and "who knew?" connections.

To visualize these stories cutting-edge technology is used to turn raw data into authentic moving images, building on expertise from a previous (and highly-praised) project; "Earth From Space." Using this technique, we can map humanity’s behavior in stunning, never seen before detail, revealing how our civilization grew, how it works today and what the future might hold."

MIckGspot said...

Hello donalfagan,
12000 years of human transformation of Earth. It seems to me most of the change in terms of the physical were done in the last two hundred years and we are still on a path of exponential change on the physical realm. Other than the physical does the earth hold any other dimensions (spiritual, mental)? Yes in my book if humans look at themselves as part of the planet rather than an external entity born to mold it then the spiritual and mental traits are inherited by the definition.
Cheers Earthling!

sgage said...

@ donalfagan

"Using this technique, we can map humanity’s behavior in stunning, never seen before detail, revealing how our civilization grew, how it works today and what the future might hold."

We can map humanity eating the planet, in never seen before stomach churning detail, revealing how our civilization is destroying life. On this trajectory, the future is desolation.

Zachariah said...

Robert Fisk of UK newspaper The Independent is clearly a follower of the Archdruid, as this (front web page!) article shows:

michael pulsford said...

Just catching up with this series. Enjoyed the piece! The section on 'primitive' cultures reminded me of a neat formulation someone put to me back when I studied anthropology, that words like 'primitive' try to map differences in space onto differences in time: people who live somewhere else are treated as though they are from our past. If you start from the presupposition that there is only one human trajectory through history, cultural difference can only be understood as being further ahead, or futher behind, along that single trajectory.