Beyond Civilization

I recently read Thom Hartmann's The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: Waking Up To Personal and Global Transformation (Three Rivers, 1999). It's pretty thorough on the ecological scare tactics front! A related subject I've been researching a bit lately is solar power. A recent article in Science talked about generating all the power for the US from 10,000 square miles of solar collectors in Nevada. Not really a serious proposal, but it points out a possibility. I found another report on-line, a KPMG study done for Greenpeace that discussed large scale solar electric power. Right now electricity from solar panels runs about 10x the cost from the power company, depending no doubt on where you are. I wonder how the numbers would work out in say San Diego these days?! The biggest problem seems to be that the manufacturing capacity isn't there. Everything these days runs on economies of scale. Well maybe not everything, I guess mini-mills are big in steel these days. But anyway, the KPMG report talks about a chicken-and-egg problem, that nobody will build a big enough factory to get the unit cost down until the demand is there, but the demand won't be there until the cost comes down.

It's a very interesting question: if some social structure or pattern of behavior A is more optimal in some sense than pattern B, will society somehow inevitably evolve into pattern A before too long, before pattern A becomes non-optimal because of changes in circumstances? The Whig history approach is just to say, whatever pattern we have must be optimal just because we have it, its existence is proof of its optimality, and who anyway can justify any sort of lofty authority to make any other judgements of optimality anyway? Well that isn't my approach at all, I think we each of us have the fundamental responsibility as human beings to take responsibility and make judgements and act as wisely as possible to improve things one way or another. I view the general pattern of human society to be miserably sub-optimal and given all the various feedback loops that amplify stupidity and desparation, I don't see any very big opportunities for improvement! But the space of possibilities includes wonderful and delightful feedback loops of bliss and wisdom, and maybe all we need is a small opportunity after all with a few of the right nudges in the right place! Anything is possible!

I don't really see how we can get solar power in place before oil starts to collapse. But there's lots of coal, so the real race is with global warming. Then there's nuclear. It seems like we'll poison ourselves one way or another before we run out of raw materials. The chain of cause and effect is so long, how can people become aware of the link between their behavior and the consequences they experience, or that their grandchildren will experience?

For me the weakest part of Hartmann's book is the vision. He seems stuck proposing a return to tribal life, pre-civilization. I have a different vision. I don't mind seeing the issue on the table coming out of the tribal - civilization transition. A real strength of Hartmann's book is that he shows how big civilized empires emerged out of tribal life at multiple times in multiple places. At one point he does though paint a picture of some evil being who poisons things, as if civilization doesn't emerge as much as get introduced from some sort of outside influence. This I view as a deeply flawed vision. Hartmann likes to contrast sustainable tribal culture with unsustainable civilized culture, cataloging the many collapses of the many great civilizations that have risen and fallen over the millenia. But this isn't quite right. Tribal culture is not sustainable either! The collapse of civilized culture is generally due to some resource limit or plague. Tribal culture reveals its instability when somehow it evolves into civilization!

So my grand vision is of some kind of trans-civilization, some kind of culture that goes past civilization. This echoes all the post-modern blather, but trumps it. Forget the puny little medieval - modern transition, let's go deeper, to the tribal - civilized transition! One can look at the history of civilization as one of bigger and bigger empires forming and collapsing. Finally now we are entering into the grandest civilization yet, the global city. No more frontier! And at the same time, we're on the cusp of the grandest collapse yet. Of course, anybody's guess how all this plays out. But if we cultivate a vision of the most positive possibilities, perhaps the right little incalculable nudges will somehow carry us through the narrowest window of opportunity.

My notion of trans-civilization is built on Ken Wilber's concept of the pre-trans fallacy. He's talking about ego, how enlightenment (in the yogic sense) is not any sort of infantile regression to a pre-egoic state, but a further evolution to a trans-egoic state, one that must incorporate elements of ego as it becomes free of the limitations of ego. Similarly, a trans-civilized culture will have to incorporate elements of civilization but at the same time recovering some elements of tribal life, just as the enlightened master recovers some of the innocence and spontaneity of a child.