Once upon a time, I was on an internet mailing list that jabbered about “saving the world.” Industrial civilization was hammering the planet. What should we do? Some advocated dropping out and creating self-sufficient eco-villages. Others thought that industrial civilization had to be smashed first, because nothing would be safe until then. A philosopher from Florida persistently asked: “How can we expect to stop them by emulating those that have been destroyed?” His question was not easy to dismiss, and it made the pacifists squirm.
Andrew Bard Schmookler’s book, The Parable of the Tribes, takes a long hard look at the problem of power and exploitation. Schmookler believed that wild humans enjoyed lives of wholeness and freedom that modern folks can barely imagine. In the good old days, human societies were stable, because our development was guided by genetic evolution, a slow-moving process. Nature provided our sustenance, and we took only what we needed. We were not in control of the world, nature was. Humans were just one member of the great family, and nothing more.
Slowly, very slowly, over the course of many generations, cultures began to emerge. Gradually, cultures passed more and more knowledge from one generation to the next, which improved our skills at exploiting nature. Eventually, our growing cleverness led us to attempt an escape from the control of nature, and its limits — an impossible goal in the long run, but we tried.
We moved away from the wild buffet, and began producing our own food, in abundant quantities. We cut down forests and replaced wild ecosystems with colonies of domesticated plants and animals. By doing this, we were able to temporarily extract far more energy from nature, and this moved us into the fast lane. The monstrosity that we were creating made us unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous.
Of course, more food always leads to more hungry mouths, and farming societies grew and grew. First, they expanded by swiping the lands of wild humans, and when they ran out of those lands, they had to make a choice. They could either limit their population, or they could conquer other farming societies. Well, the farmers were bloated with overconfidence. If they were powerful enough to escape from the limits of wild nature, then they were certainly powerful enough to swipe the lands of their lazy, stupid, sub-human neighbors. Fetch the war paint, lads!
In the struggle between growing societies, the process selected for power. Aggressive ruthless bullies were the most likely to come out on top. Eventually, this led to hierarchical society and civilization. Most humans were reduced to bondage, and legions of slaves built awesome monuments celebrating the gory glory of notorious bullies. Warfare became a popular pastime. For the first time, domination and control — power — was introduced into the world.
“Power” is a keyword in this book. It meant forcing your will against the will of another. Power provided the black magic juju for dancing to the beat of conquest and exploitation. It was a new form of energy on the planet. Wild people had no use for it, because they lived within nature, and all was well. Power was the mother of “civilization,” another disgusting profanity.
Schmookler wrote that this struggle between societies was rooted in “anarchy” — meaning a dangerous, uncontrollable, state of disorder. This confused me at first, because anarchy can also simply mean the absence of government. For almost all of human history, anarchy worked wonderfully well in isolated wild societies that were based on self-control, cooperation, sharing, and freedom. Wild societies were a normal functional component of the natural order; they had no need for rulers. Anarchy is not a four-letter word.
Our school systems teach a “commonsense” version of history that ignores almost everything that preceded civilization. It’s a mythical story of progress, in which highly intelligent humans made continuous advancements by deliberate choice, bringing us to the techno-utopia of modern times. Schmookler hates his myth because, in reality, civilization has generally done a poor job of meeting human needs, except for the elites — and it’s been a huge disaster for ecosystems.
Schmookler offered a very different story, which he called the parable of the tribes. He thought that as civilizations grew, they began to bump into each other, leading to conflict. One day, tribe A massacred tribe B and — shazaam! — power was introduced into the world, like the rat-infested ship that delivered the Black Death to Europe in 1347. When one society in a region began to utilize power, stability came to an end, replaced by treacherous anarchy. At this point, it became impossible to choose a life of peace. The only way to survive with a bully in the neighborhood was to become a bully too — only power can stop power.
The bottom line is that Schmookler foresees two possible outcomes for humankind: (1) mutual annihilation or (2) a global civilization that can unify humankind, and put an end to the struggle for power — a just world order guided by reason and values. To stop the never-ending conflicts between civilizations, the solution is to create the mother of all civilizations. It’s a surprising idea in a book that majors in tirelessly criticizing civilization from every conceivable angle.
“How can we expect to stop them by emulating those that have been destroyed?” Who is “them?” Would the mother of all civilizations be emulating Uruk, Babylon, and Timbuktu — proud civilizations destroyed long ago?
Schmookler does not recommend solving our problems by violent revolution, because revolutions have a reliable habit of replacing old tyrants with new ones — a bloody waste of energy. We’re so far from home that simple strategies are not enough. Utopia is not just a revolution away. Healing will take generations, and the disease will leave permanent scars.
Years ago, before I became politically correct, I used to cite Reese’s Law: “The <sphincters> always win.” It was so frustrating that the savages with the spears almost never massacred the white dudes with the smallpox, artillery, and machine guns. The beautiful wild folks who lived sustainably, and treated the land with respect and reverence, always got stomped by ecocidal maniacs. Where was the justice? Why did they have to die running?
Well, Schmookler gives us a model that makes our predicament comprehensible, and that’s what makes this book important. It delivers pieces missing from the great puzzle. Power just happened, by accident, and once it was born, nothing could stop it. So, humans aren’t evil. There’s no need to feel guilty about our ancestors’ boo-boos. We’ve inherited problems that have been growing for thousands of years. It feels better to understand this, but it doesn’t rinse away the bitter taste of tragedy and injustice.
His solution is a throwaway, because predicaments have no solutions (only problems can be solved). I think that there are many more than two possible outcomes. Mutual annihilation will remain a real risk. A benevolent global civilization is highly dubious on the grounds of human nature alone, but Peak Cheap Energy will render it impossible. Industrial civilization is in the beginning stages of collapse, and we are moving toward a future that is going to be local and muscle-powered. Current patterns of living and thinking will disintegrate. This will open the doors to many new possibilities, one of which is a return to sustainable living. As Schmookler says, “the future remains to be written.”
Today’s benediction comes from J. C. Smuts: “When I look at history, I am a pessimist… but when I look at prehistory, I am an optimist.” Amen!
Schmookler, Andrew Bard, The Parable of the Tribes — The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, SUNY Press, Albany, New York, 1995, second edition.