Vincent Kelley: Civilization and the Deniability of Impermanence

By Vincent Kelley / Deep Green Resistance Great Plains & Eugene

Civilization’s continuance requires widespread denial among the populace of civilized nations. The denial of the inherent unsustainability and violence of civilization is, for example, pivotal in the conventional understanding of civilized existence as the most “advanced” or “highest” form of societal organization. While denial of the egregious material consequences of civilization is the most blatant example of this culture’s sickness, there’s an intuitive sense among those who are aware of civilization’s destructive nature that there are deeper socio-psychological problems in the substratum of civilized life. Although often undetected, the denial of impermanence is one of the strongest underlying forces behind civilization’s rapacity and attendant destructiveness.

Impermanence is inherent to existence regardless of sociocultural arrangements, present in cyclical indigenous cultures and contemporary linear industrial civilization alike. Despite this undeniable fact, the way a culture relates to impermanence plays a large part in determining its sustainability, the level of violence it perpetuates, and the internal well-being of its members.

One option is to accept and even embrace the basic uncertainty of an impermanent world. We may get sick at any time. We will certainty grow old. And, incontrovertibly, we will experience the most conspicuous and mysterious of impermanences: death. Another option is to tell ourselves that impermanence doesn’t exist. We can decide to fear old age, illness, and death. [2] as the greatest of horrors and center our morality around what historian Faisal Devji calls “life as an absolute value.” [3]  Since death is an impermanence that cannot be avoided, it is worth reflecting further on its place in society and, in turn, our individual psychologies.

Just as patriarchy is viewed by some feminist philosophers, such as Ynestra King, as the root hierarchy from which all other forms of domination in society flow [4] a fear of fluidity, change, and passing away in life can often be traced back to a deep fear of death itself. Indeed, we sometimes speak of something “dying” in our life as it fades away. The civilized response to death, and all impermanence for that matter, is to resist it with all of one’s might. As activist and philosopher Charles Eisenstein notes, “[t]his is most obvious in our medical system, of course, in which death is considered the ultimate ‘negative outcome,’ to which even prolonged agony is preferable.” [5]

But if impermanence is part of life, and death is the paragon of impermanence, why can’t death also be seen as a part of life? Some cultures—clearly not our own—have understood death in this light. Indigenous scholar Jack Forbes points out that “'[s]oil fertility’ is, in large part, nothing but a measure of the extent to which a particular bit of ground is saturated with our dead ancestors and relatives,” and concludes that “[d]eath, then, is a necessary part of life.” [6] More concretely, we can observe this phenomenon when a nurse log facilitates the growth of burgeoning seedlings as itself decays. Going even further, Yaqui nagualli Juan Matus invites us to conceive of our death as a sort of gift for another, even if this other is only a micro-organism. [7]

So, as we can see, death—and impermanence more broadly—is inevitable personally and is even inextricably linked to life itself. However, attitudes towards death can be radically divergent, and, as I hope to demonstrate, tremendously consequential in our relationship to ourselves and the natural world.

One of the repercussions of the denial of impermanence is the privileging of preservation over experience itself. One need not look far to see the copious examples of this obsession in our culture. Often, taking pictures on a hike, for example, takes precedence over the experience of hiking itself. And, in some cases, the picture taking can even set up a wall of separation between “us” and “nature,” commodifying the latter while attempting to preserve a static conception of the former as a rigid identity.  What about music? Do you ever find yourself at a concert thinking more about purchasing the band’s CD or looking them up on the internet than experiencing the music as it manifests around you? It’s not that these efforts to capture a fleeting moment are inherently wrong; they do become constricting, however, when they take priority over present-moment experience itself.

Indeed, when we valorize creation and preservation over decay and ephemerality—failing to see their inseparability—we are left in an existential bind where “making our mark,” so to speak, in an often physical manner, seems like the only sensible and worthwhile course of action. The drive to make a mark springs from a cultural belief that our value is dependent upon leaving something behind that will make us worthy in the eyes of society after we die, or at least place us in the category of people who worked for the cause of civilizational progress—bowing at the alter of the off limits idol of “human innovation.”

Hence, to have our very existence affirmed we are compelled to create something “permanent” as a testament to our worth. This mark-making often takes the form of environmental degradation and imperial conquest. We create toxic chemicals that will outlive us all, erect dams that alter the Earth’s orbit [8] and are more concerned about the future strength of the United States military, and the propagation of Western Civilization to “backwards” parts of the globe, than the availability of clean air and potable water. The paradox of all of this is that, in an effort to preserve, we destroy. Our fear of the impermanence inherent in existence has led us to create that which destroys and fail to realize the consequences as the pattern plays out time and time again.

Eisenstein writes that “[t]he whole American program now is to insulate oneself as much as possible from death—to achieve ‘security.’” [9] Concomitant with this false sense of security is a false sense of control. The desire for control is a result of denying impermanence. As an alternative to this denial, we can acknowledge that the world is full of ever-changing, largely unpredictable, and, above all, endlessly developing then decaying phenomena. Only then can the control imperative fall away, relegated to history as the ignorant, destructive, and ultimately self-defeating ideology that it is. Take technology. One of the alluring aspects of technology is the ability to control previously uncontrollable phenomena. But for us to be able to control something through technology, it’s presupposed that we have control over technology.

This is a misconception. Indeed, philosopher Tad Beckman asserts, in his reading of Martin Heidegger’s writings on technology, that technology is not merely “a complex of contrivances and technical skills, put forth by human activity and developed as means to our ends,” but instead is, in essence, “a vast system of organization which encompasses us rather than standing objectively and passively ready for our direction and control.” It is “an autonomous organizing activity within which humans themselves are organized.”[10] And, as Heidegger himself points out in The Question Concerning Technology, “the will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.” [11]

The same can be said of civilization as a whole. With its growth imperative it takes on an existence in itself within which humans must function. Our desire to control increases, paradoxically, in proportion to the increase of civilization’s control of our very existence. As cities grow and encompass the globe, dictating the terms of our existence, the surveillance state and the extirpation of biomes become all the more essential—two examples of this culture’s rapacious crusade of domination. In the process, the fallacy of infinite growth on a finite planet is implanted into our worldview, further reinforcing our denial of impermanence. In other words, the avariciousness inherent in the structure of civilization is matched by that of civilized humans, who have created a way of living which provides the illusion of control as it uncontrollably metastasizes across the planet.

The denial of impermanence is not only toxic to our individual selves, but also to those beings with which we enter into relationships, human and nonhuman, and the planet as a whole. At the root of our insecurity with impermanence is a fear, and, in the end, a misunderstanding of death, which is, in reality, a part of life. This leads us to devalue present-moment experience as we grasp at preservation and replicability. Finally, our faith in the religion of civilization has led us to become inextricably ensnared in civilization’s controlling trap, unable to see through the shadow of its edifices. Reflecting on the impermanence in our lives, and in the life of the decaying culture within which we live, is therefore critical in our struggle to engender a way of living that is free from the greed, exploitation, and devastation of civilization.

Notes

[1 ] See Derrick Jensen, Endgame: The Problem of Civilization (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), 40-41 for a discussion of cyclical vs. linear cultures.
[2] My invocation of the “old age, illness, and death” example is derived from Buddhist teachings. See for example the Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57): http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html.
[3] Faisal Devji, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (United States: Harvard, 2012), 186.
[4] Andrew Brenna and Yeuk-Sze Lo, “Environmental Ethics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/ethics-environmental/
[5] Charles Eisenstein, “The Ethics of Eating Meat: A Radical View,” Weston A. Price Foundation (June 30, 2002), at http://www.westonaprice.org/health-issues/ethics-of-eating-meat.
[6] Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and other Cannibals (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008 (1979)), 10-11.
[7] Ibid., 10.
[8] Malcolm W. Browne, “Dams for Water Supply Are Altering Earth’s Orbit, Expert Says,” New York Times (March 3, 1996), at http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/03/news/dams-for-water-supply-are-altering-earth-s-orbit-expert-says.html.
[9] Eisenstein, loc. cit.
[10] Tad Beckman, “Martin Heidegger and Environmental Ethics,” Harvey Mudd College (2000).
[11] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper, 1977 (1954), 5. I should note that       Heidegger was critiquing technology as a “mode of Being-in-the-world,” not in the sense of “the machines and devices of the modern age,” per se (Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/heidegger/.

8 thoughts on “Vincent Kelley: Civilization and the Deniability of Impermanence”

  1. VK wrote: ‘The denial of impermanence is not only toxic to our individual selves, but also to those beings with which we enter into relationships, human and nonhuman, and the planet as a whole… Reflecting on the impermanence in our lives, and in the life of the decaying culture within which we live, is therefore critical in our struggle to engender a way of living that is free from the greed, exploitation, and devastation of civilization.”

    This is a great & timely article for me, as I apply my “practices” of yoga & meditation to all areas of my life, including what I do with the climate catastrophe information.

    The buddha and spiritual warrior cultures taught non-violence NOT pacifism – there is a difference that requires some skill to understand. But to make it obvious, imagine if someone you love (or any creature, actually) is being brutalized in another room, you do not sit back and philosophize about life & existentialism – you immediately act effectively in your best capacity to defend them or seek greater help. True humanity is to be, compassionate enough to defend & protect.

    There are tricky parallel universes in any DGR-contemplating head (industrial ecocide coupled with birds still singing, joyful children you know facing epic upheavals if not extinction, practically everything having a carbon footprint – even camping supplies.). It’s a fact that everyone dies, I totally accept that. But unchecked, berserk industrialization and its deep disregard for our planetary mother and family is a call to rise, and do it right – with your whole heart, and a steady mind.

    Thank you Vincent!

  2. Thought provoking, VK. I wonder though if the ills of modern civilization are not so much a result of denying impermanence and a need for control as the simple result of us all enjoying the present benefits here and now, while removing the unpleasant consequences to “somewhere else” and to the future.

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