[Note: This is the fifty-second sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.
The culture we live in is fantastically irrational, burning every bridge it crosses, and then charging forward to rubbish what lies ahead. Efforts to comprehend reality often result in throbbing headaches. In the early pages of this book, I mentioned a fundamental question that William Cronon’s father gave him, to help his son navigate the path of life with greater wisdom, “How did things get to be this way?” Both father and son were history professors. His question has guided my process of writing this book.
William and John McNeill were another father and son team of historians, and their vision was to write a book that actually answered the question. William’s 1963 experiment was written in a conventional history textbook style, and was a hefty 829 pages. John thought a slimmer and slicker book was possible. He envisioned an unconventional approach, and with a few years of effort the two of them got the job done in 350 pages, The Human Web.
Webs are relationships that link together groups of people that have come into contact with each other. These meetings encourage exchanges of information. In ancient times, hunter-gatherers were few in number, and widely dispersed. Bow and arrow technology somehow spread around the wild and roadless planet, to every continent except Australia. This was made possible, over the passage of millennia, by the first worldwide web, which remained a loose and informal network. As wild folks migrated into unknown lands, and encountered new challenges, innovation increased the odds for survival. Learning the skills used by others could be extremely beneficial.
Then came agriculture. As farming and herding grew in importance, the human herd also grew. More and more cities and civilizations mutilated once-healthy ecosystems, filling the land with more and more people. Strangers from different webs bumped into each other, more and more often. These random meetings exposed folks to more and more foreign technologies, crops, ideas, goods, and so on. Over time, regional webs formed, and these often merged with others, forming larger webs. Webs enabled a wide variety of information to travel to distant lands, where it accumulated, mutated, intermingled, and jumped on the next boat or caravan to elsewhere.
Eventually, via this process of mergers and acquisitions, the most powerful web of all came into existence around A.D. 200, the Old World Web. In its early phase, it spanned across North Africa and most of Eurasia. By 1450, about 75 percent of humans lived within it. After 1890 it grew explosively. Today, it has essentially become a single worldwide web that includes most of humankind, from beggars to billionaires.
As professors, the McNeills had a sacred occupational obligation to gush with pride about the wonders of science, technology, progress, and human brilliance. It’s mandatory that innocent young students be filled with a radicalized blind faith that we’re zooming up the path to a better tomorrow. At the same time, the McNeills felt a moral obligation to make an embarrassing confession, regarding the dark shadow of brilliance — civilization’s chronic addiction to self-destructive habits. The amazing consumer wonderland that we live in is only kept on life support by ever-growing complexity made possible by ever-increasing flows of rapidly diminishing non-renewable resources, especially fossil energy — a steep and slippery downhill path to a mangled tomorrow.
More and more, the inflow of strategic resources is getting dodgy. We are moving at a brisk velocity toward rock solid limits. Consequently, John regretfully sighed, “the chances of cataclysmic violence seem depressingly good.” They were writing 20 years ago, back in the happy days when far less was known about methane plumes, melting permafrost, abrupt climate change, and the limits of modern technology to conjure miraculous solutions.
In prehistoric times, webs were small and simple exchanges between neighboring tribes. Like all other wild critters, our ancestors were absolutely integrated into the ecosystem around them, to a degree that we can barely imagine today — like your hand is connected to your arm. The full attention of all their senses was tuned into the sights, sounds, and smells of the surrounding land. Their world was sacred, spiritually alive, worthy of full respect.
Louis Liebenberg spent lots of time among hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, folks who lived like your ancestors once did. Today, some experts believe that the ancestors of every living human trace back to their ancient gene pool. Hunting on the hot, dry Kalahari was challenging. Some hunters were more skilled than others. In one group, up to half of the adult men did not kill even one large animal in a year. Some barely killed any large game during their entire lives. Reciprocity was the bedrock norm. Meat was always equally shared with everyone. Hunters were expected to be humble and gentle. When a lad had a long lucky streak, he might take some time off — sometimes for weeks or months — to avoid inspiring envy and resentment.
Each band lived within a territory that they considered their hunting grounds. The boundary lines were not marked, but all the neighboring hunting bands knew where they were, and respected them. Boundaries reduced the likelihood of friction and conflict. In drought years, when a hunting ground dried up, the band could shift to the hunting ground of an allied band. This provided life insurance in a land where precipitation varied from place to place, and year to year.
It’s hard to imagine our ancestors’ extremely intimate connection to place. Natalie Diaz described this relationship. In the Mojave culture, there is no separation between me and the place that surrounds me, we are one. Each person is entirely a living embodiment of the nearby water, air, soil, plants, and animals. In the Mojave language, the same word is used to express both body and land, because they are the same. People are buried in the land of their birth, the land of their ancient ancestors, the place where they belong, home sweet home. Over time, the family of life recycles their corpses, and new beings arise.
You carry yourself much differently when you deeply experience your sacred connection to all that is, and are fully present in a healthy wild ecosystem. This sense of oneness with life, experienced by our Homo ancestors for more than two million years, has had a substantial influence on the development of what we are as a species. The mind and body of the amazing critter you see in the mirror was fine-tuned via a very, very long era of successfully living as happy, healthy, brown skinned, curly haired, bare naked, illiterate wild heathens in the tropics.
We continue to squirt out of the womb with the genes of a Pleistocene tropical primate. Today’s newborns still expect to open their eyes in a healthy wild world that is filled with abundant life. They are ready to spend their life’s journey wandering, living in small bands of family and friends, singing under the stars, dining on a generous variety of wild foods. We only become unstable oddballs when we are born into a dysfunctional society, and have no choice but to learn its ways.
For us, still today, it is comfortable and enjoyable to be among small groups of people that we love, respect, and trust. Cooperation and sharing are what healthy humans naturally do. We expect to be fondly treated like an equal.
In modern society, most of us do not spend every day surrounded by an intimate circle of equals. It is unpleasant being around folks who are self-centered, disrespectful, and exploitive. We are constantly encouraged by our culture’s thundering jungle drums to live and think like individuals, not sisters and brothers. The fundamental verb of life is compete. A primary purpose in life is to climb as high as possible up the pyramid of wealth and power.
For us, still today, it is comfortable and enjoyable to wander through a forest, gathering mushrooms, berries, and nuts. It’s healing to watch moonlight rippling on the surface of a wild and isolated lake. It’s inspiring to feast on the beauty of northern lights in a winter wonderland.
In modern society, eight lane highways filled with speeding motorized wheelchairs seem like horrific glimpses into the rumbling bowels of hell. Nothing could be more unnatural and traumatizing than living amidst large numbers of strangers, day after day. We are like zoo inmates surrounded by walls and fences. John Livingston wrote that lions raised in zoos, under absolute human control, and isolated from wild habitat, go insane. They are “overfed, graceless, apathetic, almost catatonic.” No animal was meant to live like this.
Today, our lives are connected to the global economy, industrial civilization, numerous news and entertainment feeds, and necessities produced by perfect strangers in faraway places. Many of us don’t feel at home in nature. We live in climate controlled space stations, staring at glowing screens, lonely in a world of billions, clinging to our companion animals. Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “What can one expect from a man who has spent the last 20 years of his life putting heads on pins?”
John Gowdy put his spotlight on a massive shift in the human saga. Humans emerged maybe 300,000 years ago, near the end of the Pleistocene epoch. The Pleistocene was a 2.5 million year era of countless whipsaw climate swings. Trends could sometimes shift from ice age to tropical in just two centuries. The pattern changed around 9,700 B.C., with the arrival of the Holocene epoch, a highly unusual and long lasting era of climate stability and warmer temperatures.
In several regions of the world, this change led to an abundance of wild grain. For the first time, it became possible for agriculture to be practiced over the span of several thousand years without blast freezer interruptions. Conditions became suitable for civilization. Today, as temperature trends swerve toward hothouse, this moderate stable climate is beginning to experience sharp chest pains. The sun is setting on the Holocene, and shadows are deepening on the future of industrial agriculture, and the billions who depend on it. Climate change gave birth to our reckless joyride, and climate change will drive an iron stake through its heart.
James Scott focused his research on southern Mesopotamia because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states. What are states? They are hierarchical class-based societies, with rulers and tax collectors, built on a foundation of farming and herding. Taxes were usually paid with grain, which was easier to transport and store than more perishable stuff. States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces, ritual centers, and slaves.
In Mesopotamia (now Iraq and Kuwait), the transition from wild tribes to states took several thousand years. By around 12,000 B.C., there is scattered evidence of hunter-gatherers who quit being nomads and settled down in regions having abundant wild foods. The menu included wild grains and pulses, large herbivores, and wetland wildlife. Plant and animal domestication began around 9,000 B.C. Then, it took at least four thousand years (160 generations) before agricultural villages appeared, and then another two thousand years before the first states emerged, around 3,100 B.C.
States were typically located close to the floodplains of large rivers, places having abundant fertile soil. They could produce enough grain to feed a pool of laborers. States had no interest in expanding into less productive lands that couldn’t generate enough wealth to pay the cost of governing them. Scott noted that as late as A.D. 1600, most humans in the world were still not governed or taxed by any state.
Over thousands of years, as many groups gradually shifted from wild and free toward a creepy new role as hardworking law-abiding taxpayers, housewives, or slaves, huge social changes took place. On the other hand, wild humans in the tropics did not have a more-is-better mindset when acquiring plant and animal foods. They simply took what they immediately needed, always being mindful to avoid overuse of scarce resources. They lived and thought like a coherent group, not a motley crew of competitive self-centered individuals. This very long tradition of mutual support strongly influenced the evolution of who we are today.
The important point here is that wild people were free, nobody gave or obeyed orders. But with the transition to farming and herding, freedom got put on a short leash. We began living under the firm control of a hierarchy of masters. Small groups can readily and happily cooperate, but large dense groups tend to generate snarls and sparks. Crowding overwhelms our Pleistocene minds, generating anxiety, paranoia, rage, depression, and so on. Naturally, this undermines social tranquility.
Masters fear disorder, because angry mobs can rip them to pieces. To prevent this, crowds must be overseen by enforcers. Rules must be strictly obeyed, and violators punished. Growing up in civilization, folks have to obey numerous rules decreed by families, schools, religions, businesses, bureaucracies, and so on. The god words for this way of life include compete, control, and obey.
Most of humankind is now compelled to spend much of their time wandering among mobs of strangers, folks who are not friends or kin. Some crowded communities are ruled by violent gangs, ideological fanatics, or the chaotic whims of fate. Others have law and order, tolerable rules, and sufficient enforcement — the preferred option for those who must live in Strangerland.
Livingston wrote that many endure the numbing conformity of Strangerland by choosing the safe and easy path of docility. Rules are good tools for controlling people, but beliefs are sometimes even better. When properly programmed by an ideology, our behavior can be largely manipulated by an autopilot of beliefs, like a self-driving robo-car. Believers passively accept control from their superiors, and leap to their feet and when der Führer calls.
Because we excel at herd-like followership and self-deception, it’s easy to be swept away by trendy fads or bloody gangsters. Leni Riefenstahl filmed Triumph of the Will, a haunting documentary on the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, which starred 700,000 Nazi supporters. Scene after scene shows streets jammed with folks in crisp new uniforms, marching in orderly rows. Today, with the benefit of highly advanced communication systems, charismatic hucksters, sorcerers, and lunatics can entrance large mobs of naive believers in many locations at the same time.
Carl Jung lived through the whirlwinds of death and destruction during two world wars. This was an ideal time to become a psychotherapist. Mobs bring out the worst in us, creating ideal conditions for devastating psychic epidemics. “The larger the number of people involved in an action, the greater the propensity towards mindlessness and barbarism.” Huge growing crowds jammed together in big cities encouraged what Jung called the insectification of humankind. People were at risk of “complete atomization into nothingness, or into meaninglessness. Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”
Sometime before 3,000 B.C., the first state-based civilization emerged in Sumer, located in southern Mesopotamia, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers approach the Persian Gulf, and empty into it. This civilization developed the cultural DNA for the Mesopotamian web, which eventually metastasized into the Old World Web by around A.D. 200. Today, the Old World Web dominates the whole planet, providing the thundering drumbeat for the global economy and industrial civilization. Sumer initially lit the fuse.
Abdullah Öcalan is a Kurdish political scientist (and political prisoner). He wrote about the history of Mesopotamia, his ancestral homeland. Sumerian civilization established or advanced many unusual experiments, including agriculture, herding, patriarchy, slavery, irrigation, deforestation, metallurgy, etc. The ability to produce surplus food enabled some folks to indulge in specialized pursuits — merchants, potters, smiths, miners, leather workers, fishermen, bricklayers, weavers, scribes, and so on.
Sumer’s inventions include the calendar, writing, mathematics, astrology, and prostitution. Women took a distant second place in the gender hierarchy. The traditional animism of wild folks was displaced by new forms of religion, first pantheism (multiple gods and goddesses), and later monotheism (one male god). Öcalan wrote that today’s mosques, churches, synagogues, and universities have their roots in Mesopotamian ziggurats (temples).
The McNeills noted that these ziggurats, constructed with millions of mud bricks, were the most conspicuous buildings in cities (like many of our jumbo sized capitol buildings and worship centers). At the time, they were the biggest manmade structures in the world. Ziggurats were monuments built to pay honor to deities. In the good old days, all gods were local, each city had one or more. Religions were local too. Gods were twitchy scary rascals who sometimes made believers fat and happy, and other times sent plagues, locusts, famines, floods, fires, and other assorted miseries to slap them down, or rub them out.
In order to discourage divine fury, cities built super-duper temples to flatter their gods’ fragile egos. Benefits, if any, were temporary. The ziggurats are long gone, and their gods abandoned. In Babylon, the legendary Tower of Babel was built as tall as possible, which oddly pissed off their temperamental god, who saw it as an outrageous act of blasphemy that required strong punishment. Some think the Babel legend was inspired by the ziggurat of Marduk (Babylon’s god), which certainly existed.
Babel is the Hebrew word for Babylon, a city on the Euphrates in northern Mesopotamia. Let’s take a quick side trip here. In maybe 586 B.C., Babylon’s famous ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jerusalem, destroyed their temple, and led the Jews away to a less than pleasurable exile in Babylon. The Jews brought with them their scrolls of sacred scriptures, and this sparked a historic event — the creation of the first portable religion. They were living and worshipping in a place that was far from their holy land. The portability enabled by written scriptures made multinational religions possible — believers could establish congregations anywhere in the world.
In Babylon, congregations of Jewish men and women gathered for weekly meetings to spend time with a rabbi who discussed the sacred scriptures. This preserved their cultural identity, and allowed them to remain distinct. They did not melt into Babylonian society. Congregational religions were another innovation from this era. The McNeills wrote that this put Jews on the path to monotheism. If the deity of Jerusalem could be worshipped in Babylon, then he could also be worshipped in Egypt or Lebanon. One god fits all… everywhere.
As centuries passed, cities, civilizations, and empires grew. In them, numerous competing variations of congregational religions provided solace to the huddled masses of Strangerland. They enabled city dwellers to be among like-minded people with familiar faces, to benefit from friendship and mutual support, and to righteously snort and sneer at local heretics and infidels. Urban populations lacked the intimate sense of community found in village life, or tribal life. Congregations provided some pain relief, a sense of meaning and belonging.
Öcalan presented a different perspective on the birth of monotheism. Long, long ago, Babylon was home to a minor league god named Marduk. Eventually, he rose to prominence after mercilessly slaughtering the primordial sea-serpent goddess, Tiamat (the female principle), and creating the world with her body. Marduk (the male principle) then created humans, to take care of the daily dirty work as servants and slaves, freeing the gods to enjoy a decadent life of leisure and debauchery.
Marduk could be helpful or brutal, depending on his mood. Over time, he became the supreme deity, and gained the title Bel (Lord). In Babylon, he was astrologically associated with the jumbo planet we now call Jupiter. Over time, this Mesopotamian web spread into new regions. In Greece, the top god Zeus was also associated with Jupiter. When it eventually got to Rome, their highest god was actually named Jupiter.
What was happening here was a huge revolutionary transition in the human saga, from the Stone Age to the Neolithic era (the new stone age), when folks shifted from hunting and foraging to farming and herding. The Neolithic first arose in Mesopotamia. Then, the highly contagious culture spread to North Africa, India, China, the Danube region, southwest Europe, and elsewhere. It matured into a culture of civilization, food production, slavery, patriarchy, growth mania, and so on.
In wild webs, bands of hunter-gatherers lived via cooperation. In the Mesopotamian web, workers, housewives, and slaves were obligated to submit to the control of their assorted masters. Top level masters (kings, emperors, etc.) were mortal patriarchs who had an expiration date. Upon death, a new master had to take his place. Sometimes the transfer of power was smooth, and other times it sparked fury.
Monotheism’s deity, Big Daddy, was immortal, invisible, and divine — the supreme master, who endured the passage of centuries, and the rise and fall of mortal rulers. His rules were the highest ones. They were permanent, and disobedience was dangerous and stupid. God must be feared. The invisible Big Daddy watches everything you do, and knows your every thought. We behave differently when someone is watching us, and we experience guilt, shame, and paranoia when our minds are being read. This submission to multiple layers of masters and rules was the oxygen that kept civilization on life support.
In his pro-feminist writing, Öcalan wrote, “The 5,000 year history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of women.” Prior to 2000 B.C., the woman-mother culture strongly influenced Sumerian civilization, and the two sexes were fairly equal (no shaming of women). Over time, the warrior class encouraged a strongman cult that came to dominate religion. The creator of heaven and Earth was male (Marduk). “So radical was this sexual rupture, that it resulted in the most significant change in social life that history has ever seen.”
This led to the “housewifization” of women, a sharp demotion. Their new role was to sit at home, and faithfully obey their husbands. Chastity became mandatory, in order to guarantee the genuine paternity of daddy’s children, so that only his true sons would rightfully inherit his wealth. It was vital that young women remain virgins prior to marrying their master.
[Continued in sample 53]