Editor’s Note: The Earth is dying. The facts are there. Yet, not a lot of people take it seriously. Otherwise, we would have seen a much greater action around it. The following post tries to explain this phenomenon by the concepts of enlightenment, wétiko, denial of reality and maximum power principle, and by challenging the preconceived notions in our civilization.
By Erik Michaels/Problems, Predicaments and Technology
My last post about enlightenment was to describe the simple fact that enlightenment does not bring happiness or fulfillment but is a stripping away of innocence and naïvety. Enlightenment is what experience and reality replaces idealism with. My own experience informs me that I must choose to look for positives rather than the negatives which initially overwhelm me. I must turn away from the anthropocentric perspective which I am naturally biased with. In this manner, I can then begin to look at the collective set of predicaments our species has brought forth and see it for the unvarnished truth that it really is. My writings aren’t unique, as many others write about the same topics as I do. However, very few actually point to the actual roots of these predicaments the way I do, and perhaps denial of reality (see link below) is one reason why. Doing so requires much grief work along the way, realizing the true nature of how we got to this point.
I brought the concept of wétiko into that post (as well as many others), and an article from Max Wilbert about Protect Thacker Pass made me realize that I should probably expand on this concept as well as point out the reasons for it. In the article, he quotes Jack D. Forbes, and then goes on to explain here, quote:
“‘The wétiko psychosis, and the problems it creates, have inspired many resistance movements and efforts at reform or revolution. Unfortunately, most of these efforts have failed because they have never diagnosed the wétiko as an insane person whose disease is extremely contagious.’
That contagion is dangerous. None of us are immune. This is why all of humanity’s most lasting stories, from the Wendigo to Star Wars, tell of internal conflict. Whether you call it greed, temptation, evil, the Dark Side of the Force, or anything else, humans have the capacity for doing wrong.“
It was that very part which is so powerful that made me see that I need to expand on it to bring the reality of precisely what it is into the forefront. Most people brought up in western civilization cannot “see” wétiko because they are indoctrinated against it. (Go here for an indepth and complete description of what civilization is.) Elementary schools teach history in such a way as to present Europeans as the “good guys” and North American Indians as the “bad guys” when in reality, it is the other way around from an ecological standpoint. European cultures invaded North American Indians’ lands and used their superior technology to wipe out or marginalize the Indians wherever resistance was mounted. This same colonialism has presented itself time and time again all over the world, where a force with superior technology has wiped out culture after culture and relegated such cultures to history. The trouble with this is in the fact that those cultures actually lived in a far more sustainable relationship with their environment than most all of us today.
Most of us in western civilization look at land ownership, agriculture, and civilization itself as part of who we are, including our economic systems and cultural systems. Until one learns the reality about these systems being unsustainable, one almost never questions their necessity or their presence. Once one questions the presence and the necessity of continuing these systems, one becomes aware of the fact that humans lived without these systems for most all of our entire history except the last ten to twelve thousand years (in the case of civilization) and only the last 200 years or so has been industrial civilization.
“The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is a normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” ~ Assata Shakur
This quote is poignant due to precisely the predicament we find ourselves in. Now, I still do not think that 8 billion or more human beings can live on this planet in a sustainable manner, regardless of how they live simply due to the fact that in order to provide habitat to that many humans more or less requires an amount of energy for habitat greater than can be provided through renewable resources (provided by photosynthesis). Still, there is no doubt in my mind that the humans who are alive today could live far more sustainably than those of us who live the Western Civilization lifestyle. The oppression most all of us face has to do with technology use, civilization, and the economic system currently being used, among many other items commonly discussed in the social justice realm.
Whether one calls the set of circumstances we find ourselves in a predicament, a multi-polar trap, dilemma, or something having a similar meaning as these, this set of circumstances is far different than a problem. This set of circumstances cannot be solved or answered with a simple solution or even a set of solutions. Even if the entirety of human population right now could cease all anthropogenic emissions immediately (something which is utterly impossible), ecological overshoot and climate change and many other symptom predicaments of overshoot would continue unabated (see Denial of Reality for the evidence). While eliminating emissions would be a really nice start to mitigating climate change, as long as overshoot is allowed to continue, we would have accomplished very little. The only way to reduce overshoot is to reduce technology use – in other words, we will need to promote degrowth and the abandonment of the system of civilization, because it is unsustainable. Civilization is supported by technology use and cannot exist without it. Even back when our species lived mostly in a sustainable fashion, we only did so after causing destruction first (usually in the form of wiping out the species we relied on for our very existence) and learning from our mistakes. Still, most Indigenous societies learned these lessons and even today still live in a mostly sustainable fashion compared to those living in the system of civilization.
Ultimately, Indigenous cultures found a way to live more or less in a subsistence lifestyle and did so in a very fulfilled way, being supported by other members of their society. Because each member felt supported by the other members, there was generally little unhappiness. If a member felt unhappy about something, it was discussed with others who helped the member come to terms with whatever ailed him or her.
Getting back to Max Wilbert’s quote, we see that wétiko psychosis is the cause of our undoing and that it is very contagious. How does this present itself in society? Take any form of technology from simple to complex and show a person unfamiliar with said technology this tool to help this person through his or her day. How likely would a person reject this new form of help, especially if you are his or her friend and YOU have it and are using it? Start with simple stone tools and progress through today’s computerized systems, robotics, AI systems (who hasn’t seen someone posting about ChatGPT?), cars, electricity, medical technology and so on. What you have just witnessed is the Maximum Power Principle in action. This is precisely what causes our lack of agency with regard to so many different topics, and also what causes the root issue of our unsustainability. For those who still believe in free will, go back to these articles I have linked here and read them. It took me a long time to accept the reality and I am all too painfully aware that providing the facts and evidence won’t change your mind because if it did, you would no longer have the impediment of that belief since it doesn’t exist:
“You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep seated need to believe.” ~Carl Sagan
As for folks who think we have the ability to go against the Maximum Power Principle, you are actually correct – we can go against it (in a sense). This is exactly what most Indigenous cultures did upon coming into contact with European cultures. The European cultures then subsequently wiped them out or sidelined them onto reservations because they held superior technology. I would even go as far to say that we should go against the MPP to the extent possible. This has been the attempt almost every activist has made at one point or another. However, we will then be fighting those who have superior technology and weapons (society will first label troublemakers as terrorists and use superior technology against those folks), and one can clearly see how that battle ends up. Some people may gasp at the reality of robotic dogs with mounted machine guns, but look at the technology that is available to the average person now! At the end of the day, going against the MPP is something that will only result in actually making a difference once everyone agrees that reducing ecological overshoot through reducing technology use, promoting degrowth, and promoting the abandonment of civilization is the correct way to handle the set of predicaments we have gotten ourselves into. The real question is this: Will that day ever come? I’m not going to hold my breath. As long as there are still people who choose to continue living under the system of civilization, they will consume and utilize the energy and resources that those of us who choose to conserve said energy and resources do not use, undoing any progress along the way. As long as there are those who resist giving up modern technology and civilization, reducing ecological overshoot becomes a test of character because we ALL live on the same planet. For anyone still believing otherwise, perhaps the shopping cart theory story might convince you that there are many reasons that society might still choose to live under our current systems rather than attempt to abandon it despite it being unsustainable. One last reason we lack agency is Bonhoeffer’s Theory of Stupidity I posted quite sometime ago.
The conclusion I have come to based upon all the evidence is one that I do not like at all; but one that I cannot deny either. We have very little if any agency to be able to do anything better than what is being done right now as long as there is still relative abundance. Only when the pain becomes too great will most people change their behavior, and this quote reminds me of this fact:
No one changes unless they want to. Not if you beg them. Not if you shame them. Not if you use reason, emotion, or tough love. There’s only one thing that makes someone change: their own realization that they need to do it. And there’s only one time it will happen: when they decide they’re ready. ~Unknown
Once one sees the enlightenment that I have disclosed in recent articles (going back to November) and comprehends our collective and individual lack of agency to be able to make serious change during this time of relative abundance, the best one can do is to follow their own conscience and to Live Now.
Featured image: via UnsplashPhoto by Gino on Unsplash
The comfort zone — relative to each person’s tolerance and/or choice — is often what keeps people from changing. And as John Trudell said, “We can’t out-fight them, but we can out-think them.”
I agree with this except for the fatalist attitude. Forget about trying to figure out whether you have agency, just do what you can. If you keep trying, you never know what might happen, as I’ve learned from playing sports.
As I’ve long said, this is a battle for hearts & minds, and that’s pretty much Erik Michaels’s conclusion here also. It’s not about forcing or begging people to change their attitudes, it’s about people evolving mentally and spiritually so they feel one with the Earth and all the life here, at which point they will no longer want to live harmfully. I don’t know whether there’s a way to rush this evolution, but that’s what’s needed.
So much to agree with here, but one major point that I cannot agree with and must call out (even though the “window of attention span opportunity”–about two to three days for any post, anywhere on the internet–ran out on this post almost a month ago). It’s the “Maximum Power Principle.” Like “the survival of the fittest,” the dominance-justifying pyramidic “food chain” (“might makes right”), and the capitalist growth imperative, the MPP is just another example of how the approved academic minds of “western civilization” used their positions of authority and influence to interpret the natural world in a manner intended to create justifications for predatory capitalism, colonialism and imperialism. This was done rampantly and openly during the 19th century (i.e., Herbert Spencer and his racist theory of “survival of the fittest”), but to this day, like so many, many other inherited misconceptions, we have just not been able to thoroughly question and break free from that baggage.
As an Indigenous descendent with an Indigenous, eco-centric, actively anti-anthropocentric perspective (even though I must admit that I, like just about every other human raised in this society, have also been infected to some degree with the wetiko civilization disease), I must question all analysis that comes from humans who are thoroughly rooted and nurtured in the foundations of western culture. As advised by the writings of William Catton, I do not blame any individuals for that, and I realize it is more a matter of circumstances and experiences, rather than choice, that allows some of us to question the authorities more deeply and rebel against them more freely. Even so, choices do matter and I choose to follow the voices and examples I find in the natural, non-human world over the misconceived authorities of western civilization. Our non-human relations do not “maximize” every opportunity to consume “energy” and they all have a sense of what is sufficient, “good enough,” or “sustainable.” They naturally follow Earth’s regenerative laws. Do you see a lot of examples of obesity in the natural world, or examples of our relations building enormous storage caches of food, way beyond actual need or sustainability? Do they ruthlessly murder every possible or suspected “competitor?”
The only other thing I have time to say now is please try not to dismiss every voice who does not agree with your conclusions as unenlightened “believers.”
Thanks so much George for reminding us of our many, many, inherited misconceptions, that we have just not been able to thoroughly question and break free from that baggage.