According to humans, the human brain is a miraculous organ. No other species is even half as intelligent as we think we are. But we’re seriously beating the planet, we’re not having fun, and everything is getting worse. This is called progress. Circle what is wrong with this picture.
Craig Dilworth circled humans. Modern society drove him nuts, because it was so self-destructive. It simply made no sense. But the dominant worldview worshipped the amazing progress made possible by the most incredible organism in the entire universe. How could a creature so brilliant act like this?
Dilworth, a very clever lad, eventually discovered a perspective from which our freaky behavior actually made perfect sense. He called it the “ecological worldview,” and he thoroughly described it in his book Too Smart For Our Own Good.
There was a time, long ago, when everyone’s ancestors lived with the ecological worldview, and some tribal people still do. In the last 40 years or so, a few civilized people have been rediscovering it. New ideas emerging from anthropology, archaeology, and economics have revealed that “primitive” living was awesome in many ways. Life was not “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Our wild ancestors were well nourished, very healthy, and enjoyed a leisurely way of life in an endless unspoiled wilderness. The air was clean, the water was pure, the rivers were filled with salmon, and there were countless mastodons and mammoths. The Upper Paleolithic era (40,000 – 25,000 BP) may have been the high point of the human journey. In many ways, it’s been downhill since then.
Unfortunately, the billions of people who now live with the mainstream worldview would be insulted by Dilworth’s theory, because it perceives civilized people in a most unflattering manner. Fortunately, people who are capable of thinking outside the box are starting to tune in to the new ideas and gasp with excitement — coherence at last!
Anyway, in the beginning, when our ancient ancestors still lived in trees, everything was just great. Then the climate got cooler and dryer, forests disappeared, and many of our tree-dwelling relatives went extinct. Our ancestors’ bodies were perfect for living in trees, but comically unsuitable for life on the ground. We were an easy lunch for hungry predators. We couldn’t outrun them, but we could stand up and shower them with rocks. Our new career had begun.
Our hands, eyes, and brains co-evolved. Branches became throwing sticks and spears. Rocks became projectiles, hammers, and cutters. We kept inventing more and more tools, and accumulating them. Eventually we became dependent on tools for our survival — a dangerous tendency, magnified by our limited powers of foresight. Mistakes are often our best teachers.
Hunter-gatherers were able to thrive for vast periods of time without trashing the land because they lived sustainably. Infanticide was moral because it prevented the misery of overpopulation. It would have been immoral and antisocial to keep a newborn when the No Vacancy light was on (chimps and gorillas also kill newborns). It wasn’t murder because a newborn did not become a person until the family decided to accept it.
Dilworth hammers on the obvious benefits of voluntarily limiting population, because it’s such an important idea. The mainstream worldview disagrees, of course. Living in a temporary bubble of abundant food and energy can make big throbbing brains forget many things. But when the dark ages return, the notion that every human life is sacred will promptly walk off the stage.
Using terrible weapons of mass destruction — the lance and the javelin — we hunted our way to every corner of the planet, eliminating most of the large animals. Then we switched to bows and arrows and chased the smaller stuff. Then we moved to shorelines and lived on aquatic critters. Up against the wall, because of population pressure, we made the fateful decision to till the soil and enslave plants and animals. This brought an end to a long era of relative stability (slow-motion growth).
There was a pattern here, and it went all the way back to when we first became tool addicts — necessity was the mother of invention. Dilworth called it the vicious circle principle (VCP): “Humankind’s development consists in an accelerating movement from situations of scarcity, to technological innovation, to increased resource availability, to increased consumption, to population growth, to resource depletion, to scarcity once again, and so on.” It was a merry-go-round that kept spinning faster and faster. We created a monster that never stopped eating and growing.
With the arrival of agriculture, voluntary population control faded, and our numbers rose sharply. Farmers were into growth, because there was safety in numbers. Warfare was becoming an extermination game, and small conservative communities were sure to be erased and replaced by big, dynamic, pro-growth societies. It was like an arms race, where villages were absorbed into chiefdoms, which were absorbed into kingdoms, which were absorbed into empires. Grow or die!
As societies grew, they became more complex, and more socially stratified — a small group of well-fed elites, and a large group of serfs and slaves that lived near starvation on a meager diet of bread or potatoes. Women lost status. Contagious diseases became very popular.
Dilworth wished that non-renewable resources never existed. Life would be dramatically better today if we had never had access to metals and fossil carbon. He believed that we passed the point of no return when folks started pounding on metal. This sparked a perfect storm of industrial insanity. I’m inclined to think that the point of no return had more to do with the domestication of plants and animals, which radically changed our relationship with the family of life.
Dilworth does not believe that radical changes in philosophy and worldview will happen in time. “Consequently human civilization — primarily Western techno-industrial urban society — will self-destruct, producing massive environmental damage, social chaos and megadeath. We are entering a new dark age, with great dieback.” Will we survive?
I’ve only scratched the surface here. This book is a big cornucopia of ideas. It’s time we took off our blinders. It's time we quit pretending that the huge oncoming super-storm does not exist. It's good to be present in reality, thinking clearly, and teaching our huge brains the amazing magical juju of foresight.
Dilworth, Craig, Too Smart For Our Own Good,
Cambridge University Press, , 2010. New York