Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, October 27, 2012


It seems the less time I get at the computer the more I want to say.  I hope it isn't always that way.  I hope I have enough computer time left in me to get what I want to say written down.  And I hope I have the good sense to print this stuff out on paper every so often, just in case I want to entertain myself with a reread one day, sitting under a big apple tree that I planted half a century earlier.  I had two other posts simmering in my head - one was a bit about powering down at a (socio)ecologically-adaptive rate, and the other a mildly-humorous lesson in permaculture zone and sector analysis - but, considering the timing, I thought I might take a jab at politics one more time real quick first.

No pictures today, I'm rushing head-long into cultural critic mode, so if you're not in the mood for novel, and I think enlightening, approaches to reorganizing history, cultural evolution, and a formal recognition of the "lumpenprole" as a political class, you might just skip it.  Anyone still with me at this point, let's go; I think you'll enjoy this.

From Wikipedia:

Arnold Toynbee argues that "self-determining" civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not due to racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalizations. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate.

He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another. In 1939 Toynbee wrote, "The challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order... now confronts our Modern Western society." He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environments and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by "Creative Minorities": those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow.

It is this mimesis, this mimicry of heroes, that drives and solidifies any given culture.  When a young girl claims to be a Disney princess she is engaging in mimesis, a not-altogether-make-believe mimicry that defines her future expectations based on cultural convention.  But adults do it too, all the time.  Toynbee suggests that our culture, Western Christian Civilization, was birthed around 1000 CE in western Europe and spread throughout the world by the European diaspora of nations in North America and Australasia.  Where his analysis departs from typical historical analysis is that it doesn't consider cultural genesis, growth, decay, and death from the perspective of political or economic order, but rather from the perspective of a uniting worldview.  In other words, we are less "United States" or "representative democracy" than we are "Western Christian."  Toynbee identifies (precariously, I'll admit) 23 distinct cultures over the course of human history, each with its own unique worldview - Islamic, Hindu, Mexican, Eastern Orthodox, Hellenic, Persian, Egyptian, Sinic, etc, etc - along with a few abortive civilizations (e.g. Scandanavian, Syrian) and a handful of arrested civilizations (e.g. Polynesian, Eskimo).  The name of the hip-hop group 'Arrested Development' illustrates this idea nicely: a big chunk of the long term development of black western African culture was "arrested" when it was kidnapped by Western Civilization during the slave trade, something to which, understandably, the historically-literate black leadership does its best to return its people's attention. 

I've also heard our Western Christian culture called "Faustian," though I'm not at all sure who it was that made the deal with the devil.

This so-called Creative Minority inspires a large following out of the stagnation and decay of the previous culture - just as Christianity and Judaism collected global followings from the ruins of the Roman Empire - and, after generations of mimesis, solidifies into the Dominant Minority that controls the political and cultural discussion within that society.  Again from Wikipedia:

[Toynbee] argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the physical environment, over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority," which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority" (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). [Obamacare?]  He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

It is largely this phenomenon that drives politics in the West today, and the idea that inspired the title of this post.  "Republican" and "Democrat" are terms that identify slightly different people of basically identical cultural persuasions.  Neither party is even talking about the real challenges we face in Election 2012, much less "adequately addressing" them.  In my opinion this is at least partially due to career politicians; the mere mention of our "non-negotiable" way of life within the context of constraining physical limits to that non-negotiability would be political suicide.  On the other hand, a Georgia farmer, who has spent his life with his nose to the wind, and serving a brief two year stretch in the Senate in DC at the urging of his neighbors, would be far more likely to bring up hard issues since his future is waiting for him back on the farm in Georgia, and not in the possibilities of a cabinet position with the next administration.  This is likely one of the most dangerous factors in our current predicament, and one of the biggest reasons why paying attention to the "official story" can be hazardous to your health.

Contrary to the acquiescence in the first italicized sentence above, the decay of our particular culture - which has really become the Western Christian Petro-Culture over the last few centuries - is being compounded by physical limits to our culture's resource and energy base, its operations budget.  Limits like peak phosphorus, peak fresh water, peak oil, peak everything that has come to define us as a society.  Many people think that advanced technology - in farming, information sharing, natural disaster mitigation, etc - is an asset in our particular case; in reality it is likely to be our Achilles heel, and a factor that makes our demise so much more "interesting" than the ones before us.  Still, even without this (massive) extenuating circumstance, the deterioration of Western Civilization is already well underway, and for exactly the reason Toynbee outlines.

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "universal state", which stifles political creativity within the existing social order. Toynbee writes:
"First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands."
Toynbee developed his concept of an "internal proletariat" and an "external proletariat" to describe quite different opposition groups within and outside the frontiers of a civilization. These groups, however, find themselves bound to the fate of the civilization.[3] During its decline and disintegration, they are increasingly disenfranchised or alienated, and thus lose their immediate sense of loyalty or of obligation. Nonetheless an "internal proletariat" may form a "universal church" which survives the civilization's demise.[4]

The "universal state" Toynbee refers to contains both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as any and all of their cohorts and appointees, and if one of them tries to get uppity and bring up politically-awkward subjects, like peak oil and total and permanent energy contraction, he will be dealt with swiftly, I can promise you.  That will be the guy you want to vote for.  I am not suggesting conspiracy; I am merely suggesting that the ruling political class has inbred to the point of unrecognized dogmatic behavior, or "stifled political creativity within the existing social order."  Which is totally understandable after a thousand years...

The "internal proletariat," or, as an online acquaintance who calls himself 'Bustin J' more colorfully terms "the lumpenprole," has been on the rise since at least the economic crisis of the 1890s, when Toynbee was beginning his analysis, but has swelled significantly since the manufacturing job sell-off of the 1970s which created the Rust Belt, and is picking up steam at an accelerating pace since peak economy in 2007.  The "external proletariat" includes just about everyone who isn't a member of the industrial world, and probably plenty who are, including most of the enormous Chinese population enslaved in American sweatshops for the past few decades.  As the operations budget of the industrial world continues to disintegrate, the internal proletariat will make common cause with the external, and the death spiral of Western Civilization will become genuinely irreversible.

Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism" within the body politic. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion). From among members of an "internal proletariat" who transcend the social decay a "church" may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses of the word "church" in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order.

Toynbee's thoughts here are easy enough to see in our current situation.  "Idealization of the past" accounts for the TEA party, and all the rest of the flag-waving jingoistic nostalgia that permeates our country today.  I can't even count the number of times I've heard local business owners say something to the effect of "I wish things would just go back to the way they were."  Business owners be warned: adapt to emerging ecological realities or perish.  "Idealization of the future" accounts for the preponderance of "green tech" folks out there, pining for a day when we can zip around the world in millions (billions?) of electric cars and planes, free from the guilt of burning fossil fuels to run our economy.  Which is of course a malanalyzed zeitgeist pipe dream.  Want to have a smaller automobile impact on the environment?  Drive less.  And detachment?  Sports.  New technologies.  Pop music.  Remind me who Jennifer Aniston is married to again?  Nah, never mind.  It'll be someone else tomorrow.  And finally, transcendence?  Vanishingly rare in our world.  The relatively tiny permaculture, natural building, economic relocalization, and appropriate tech movements are about all that come to mind.

Lest anyone find the idea of permaculture as an emerging "church" too heretical, even within Toynbee's definition, I would invite you to compare the garden variety (hehe) permacultural life with the teachings of the Bible.  Every permaculture site on planet Earth is a corrolary of both the Garden of Eden and Noah's ark, and its inhabitants more ethical, in objective terms, than just about any religeuse I've ever run into.  Just about any;)  Blind faith and church attendence alone don't make a person ethical.  To my mind, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the combined emerging "ecotechnic" package might fit Toynbee's concept of a "universal church" rising from the ashes of Western Civilization.  Whether that emerging "creative minority" contains within it the teachings of the Christian church or not will, like everything in permaculture, be site specific!  There is certainly nothing in the teachings of permaculture to prevent it, and I know plenty of permies who possess a religious bent.

However, one belief structure that might be more ubiquitous in the permacultural community is the understanding that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is offering anything of value to the most important discussions of our age.  And on that note I confess that, in a week or so, I will only be voting for new leadership up to the governor's office, which I expect to have an actual impact on my life for some time to come yet.  We can no longer afford an imperial government, whether that government understands that reality or not; and asking career politicians to comprehend their own demise is probably a bit of a stretch anyway.  Like Amendment One on Georgia's ballot, what's the point of voting in favor of things we can't afford??  Boycott has always been a more powerful strategy.

And it's not like the lumpenprole of 20-some-odd human civilizations have ever asked the dominant minority's permission to be inspired by novel ideas...


  1. Well said and well done.

  2. Okay! I stuck with you all the way and it was a good read. I think I'm somewhere between "green tech" and permaculture...Thanks for the insights. By the way, very interesting blog site.

  3. Shannon, thank you.

    RC, thank you, I think!

    So, I hear we're looking at four more years of the same regime? I hope no one's holding their breath for a lot of departure from the same ol' same ol'. And by that I mean more borrowing, more debt, more over-reach, more procrasination, and less chance of changing our current trajectory for the better (survival even!) of all. Not that it would have been significantly different if the vote had gone the other way.

    Well, you know what I say, there's no wasted vote except one for a Republican/Democrat! Hey, at least one person in this country ought to say it that way. Unfortunately, where I live, you don't even get both of those choices every time...long row to hoe. Happy New Term.

  4. From the late great English father of forest gardening, Robert Hart:

    "A forest garden, whether in a London suburb or on a tropical hillside, can be a matrix of creative living, of holistic development; a place where women, men, and children can imbibe health through every sense, and engage in vital, constructive activities as parts of a wider ecosystem. Dare one say that it can be a microcosm of a new, postindustrial world order?"

    "Over the years, people from many countries have come to visit [my] forest garden on Wenlock Edge. A number have spoken of making forest gardens of their own. Speaking to such people gives me great hope for the future of the world. I can detect signs of the evolution of a new breed of human being. Homo sapiens is developing into Homo altruisticus."