Friday, December 12, 2014

On Defining the Natural

Of central importance to anarcho-primitivist and Daoist thought is the concept of nature. Without the distinction between, say, technology, progress, civilization, and domestication on the one hand, and a notion of an unmanipulated, pristine natural state on the other, an anti-civilization critique becomes impossible. Both sides know this all too well, and both continue to commit much energy to either elucidate or discredit this idea of nature. The resulting contest is predictable and tired: anti-civilization folks stressing the unnatural suffering and ruin inflicted by civilization, post-modernist defenders of civilization insisting that any distinction between nature and civilization is delusion. It is therefore understandable that AP thinkers spend much of their time dragging out evidence that demonstrates how civilization and nature are at odds--the entire plausibility of the AP critique would seem to hinge on there really being such a thing as a "state of nature".

Unfortunately, that ideological position is fraught with issues. And it really is ideological--little or no scientific evidence actually supports the notion of a static state anywhere in the "natural" world. Species come in and out of existence with or without the meddling of humans, mountains rise and fall, volcanoes become lakes, lakes become forests, forests become deserts, deserts become oceans, fish become frogs, dinosaurs become birds, quadrupeds become bipeds. The notion of a "state of nature" in the West probably derives more from biblical influence than from actual science. In reality, there is no point in time for any given ecosystem at which one could point and declare it to be the definitive state of that ecosystem. Consider the current hysteria over invasive species. We'll take the decidedly unscientific war on invasive plants as an example*. In order for there to be such a thing as invasive plants, there has to be a notion of native plants. In other words, it is ideologically necessary to construct a myth of native plants, who have "always" been here, and whose venerable existence is under threat from invasive plants, who have no place being outside of their native environments. However, virtually all plants are highly mobile historically, and in many cases, can change their range annually via seed dispersal and clonal propagation. The planet undergoes periodic warming and cooling, with direct and dramatic implications for terrestrial (and aquatic) flora and fauna. Long before humans roamed North America, for example, plants adapted to warmer climes were able to make their way up to more northerly latitudes during interglacial periods, only to retreat back southward as things got cooler again. Cold-adapted plants enacted a reverse migration during ice ages. Plants are also able to access remote places like the Hawaiian Islands, the most isolated landmass on the planet and something of a "novelty" themselves in terms of their relatively recent antiquity, and colonize them thoroughly despite thousands of miles of interceding ocean. New species arrived regularly throughout the islands' history, negotiating new relationships with the established plants and animals, sometimes dying out, sometimes overrunning, and sometimes striking a balance between those two extremes. Do none of these incursions into new territory count as invasions, or is it all one long story of invasion? How should one decide what dispersal events count as natural and, therefore, acceptable and desirable, and which count as unnatural and disruptive? If nature is conceived of as a pristine condition that existed before civilization, then the occurrence of novel species and chemical compounds must be considered unnatural despite the fact that they predate the existence of humans. On the other hand, if such novelty is to be considered naturally occurring after all, then there never was a pristine, primeval state of nature to begin with, just a constant series of changes. It is precisely in this light that one could argue that civilization is nothing but a direct product of natural evolution and thus as natural as a coral reef. Thus, we anarcho-primitivists can rave all we want about all the awful things technology and civilization are doing to the biosphere and to ourselves, but without convincingly and coherently addressing this glaring paradox, AP critique essentially has nowhere to go--it is trapped under the weight of its own contradictions. Defenders of civilization will accuse us of romanticism and cherry-picking, and, until we adopt a meaningful definition of nature, they will be right.

The challenge, then, is to define something that is constantly in flux. Owing to biases that can be said to be traditional to Western philosophy (peripheral thinkers like Heraclitus excepted), which prefers to conceptualize things in distinct and unchanging categories for the sake of elucidating permanent and universal truths, the nuances of nature as flux have never sat well. If science now accepts these nuances (quantum mechanics, evolution, chaos, relativity), it does so begrudgingly, as evidenced by lingering inertia in the various branches of science. For example, biologists continue to use the Latin binomial taxonomic classification system for organisms despite the fact that such a classification scheme is in many ways contrived and fails to reflect the constant genetic evolution that proceeds from one generation of a species to the next. Occasionally, a newly discovered organism throws the entire classificatory system into disarray, requiring the renaming of several members of a genus or even family. The system is furthermore not useful for illustrating ecological relationships. Rather, it is artificially imposed for the sake of maintaining the myth that the world can be organized into discrete parts, like a machine. It is revealing that, by contrast, indigenous people consistently demonstrate remarkable awareness and familiarity with virtually all organisms sharing their environment, often even surpassing the ability of researchers to identify individual species and their habits, without anything approaching the Latin binomial system. For example, a type of tree might be customarily called an elder out of recognition for its role in an ecosystem. This name immediately conveys ecological information based on local function, whereas the scientific name of sambucus canadensis, created in a language nobody even speaks anymore, indicates nothing more than the fact that this plant is related to other sambucus trees in far-flung regions of the world, and that this particular tree exists in North America (hence canadensis--"of Canada"). The scientific taxonomic system confers a distinct identity that is intended to be absolute--sambucus canadensis is sambucus canadensis even when it is in Europe, or Australia, or the international space station. No part of its identity need derive from any given environment--all organisms an island unto themselves, and nature a random assortment of pieces. However, in a traditional manner of identification, if the tree is called an elder tree and understood to be an ecological elder to other species, then it matters little whether, from a scientific viewpoint, the tree is canadensis or chinensis; as long as it is willing to fulfill the same role, then it is the same tree. In other words, an entity's identity derives from its context, not from an innate, genetically-derived identity, which depends on a sort of scientific delusion that is in denial of flux as the essential characteristic of nature. Science and, more broadly, Western philosophy exhibit a fixation regarding absolute categorization and hierarchical ranking. There is an implied assumption that precise categorization leads directly to understanding. Appreciation for the larger trajectory of an ecosystem's evolution over time is lost in the constant focus on discerning details such as the relatively spurious differences between individual related species. This focus on the minutiae of the biosphere comes at the cost of lost perspective on the course of change on the planet as a whole--failing to see the forest for the trees, both figuratively and literally. As a result, our science--the study of nature--actually has not the slightest wherewithal with which to judge something such as civilization to be natural or unnatural, and our society's intuition (or lack thereof) on what can be considered natural versus unnatural is accordingly deeply flawed. The debate of whether anything can even be considered "outside of nature" is therefore largely relegated to philosophy--in other words, indefinitely shelved.

The principal issue with defining nature seems to center on the existence of novelty. For example, we know that terrestrial animals evolved from marine animals. A sort of fish, the story goes, gradually came to spend more and more time on dry land until a branch of its progeny evolved to be able to survive outside of the water. The first fish to crawl on dry land, then, was certainly a novelty of the first order. Even a child knows that a fish naturally belongs in the water--it quickly dies, otherwise. So, does that fact make all terrestrial animals the product of the unnatural behavior of that pioneer fish? Of course, that position seems hardly tenable. However, if learning to live on land should not be considered unnatural for that ancient fish, then why should it be that, say, tossing a live mackerel into the middle of the Alps, or rocketing astronauts (or geckos) into orbit, should be thought any more unnatural? The answer seems to do not with change in and of itself, but rather with the pace or rate of change. Tossing the mackerel onto the side of a mountain dramatically exceeds the rate at which the fish can adapt, and thus the Swiss Alps should be considered an unnatural environment for mackerel and all other fish. However, this fact does not preclude the possibility that, if allowed sufficient time and meted exposure to a foreign environment, a creature adapted to one environment could eventually undergo enough changes over generations to survive in a new one. The critical element that decides whether a novelty in the environment is natural or unnatural is therefore the rate at which that change took place. Thus, the question that should be asked about, say, genetically modified salmon, is not whether or not it is ipso facto "natural" for a salmon to consume soy and corn all its life inside a farm, but rather how long it would take for such a change in salmon adaptation to occur spontaneously--that is, without genetic modification. Obviously, such changes would take much longer, far too long for enterprise and capitalism's needs, hence GMOs, but nature has to work much more slowly because any change in one species implies a ripple effect that prods each and every other aspect of an ecosystem and possibly the entire biosphere into adjusting to that change, and of course every secondary change generated this way will entail further changes, and so on--non-linear, multilateral feedback loops that are constantly active. There is therefore no stable state devoid of change per se, but there is a relative stability in never-ending flux and adaptation so long as the pace of change does not exceed the parameters of this natural tempo. This speaks to a kind of inertia that exists across all ecosystems that both discourages sudden aberrations from occurring and that absorbs some of the shock to the system that results when such an aberration does occur. It is precisely because this inertia gets flouted in order to effect all of civilization's myriad novelties that every technological advance is decidedly unnatural. Technology, by definition, seeks to achieve something that would not otherwise result at nature's pace of change, and technological innovation is essentially the outstripping of natural change. There is no comparing that sort of artificial innovation to the evolution of a rhinoceros' horn or a bat's wings.

Nature's pace of change is itself variable and based on the totality of circumstances within the biosphere at any given moment--this is why long periods of stability in an ecosystem will tend to promote slower change whereas ecosystems undergoing sudden and dramatic disturbances will tend to see cascading changes at a faster rate. It might be useful to visualize the phenomenon of change in terms of a construct of scaffolds, similar to the scaffolding used while erecting a structure. A naturally-occurring novelty within an ecosystem can be represented as a new scaffold built atop older scaffolding. Over time, this scaffold will become integrated into the overall structure when it in turn serves as part of the immediate foundation for newer scaffolding. What would have been previously structurally impossible or unstable (unnatural) can become not only possible but necessary over time as the entire structure builds up in a steady and stable manner. The scaffolds build up like a pyramid, with the base growing wider as the structure grows taller, and with each scaffold interlocked with many other scaffolds both adjacent and distant, yielding additional stability through redundancy. This means that the removal or destruction of too many of the scaffolds from any point will have implications for the integrity of the entire structure. An occasional loss here and there under normal conditions doesn't present a real threat to stability, and even significant damage can be repaired, holes patched and failing parts replaced and even strengthened beyond previous limits. In the absence of further disturbance, it is possible for nature to incorporate an imbalance over time into a stable structure by building scaffolding to support the flaw and then eventually strengthen it so that it itself can support additional scaffolding and bridge to the other parts of the structure.

Occasional disturbances can be thought of as a way for nature to test and improve upon stability. Witness the feral revival ongoing at Chernobyl, even while radiation levels remain too high to allow humans to move back in. Because there was one catastrophic event followed by a period of relative stability, wildlife such as birds and deer have reclaimed the contaminated land in Chernobyl, though with visible effects from the lingering radiation. However, if disturbances occur at a pace that outstrips the rate at which nature can adapt to them, the resiliency of the entire structure starts to become at risk. As Homo sapiens, we, of course, also live on this structure that we are currently destabilizing. We achieve this destabilization by trying to erect a parallel structure on top of nature's structure. We call this parallel structure civilization. Civilization is erected by raiding the natural world, dismantling the various scaffolds that hold this or that aspect of the biosphere in place, and repurposing them for much narrower human designs. At a small enough scale, the strain placed by civilization on nature's structure is tolerable if not negligible, especially if the pace of civilized development does not exceed the pace of nature's own "construction", which at the outset of, say, the Holocene (11,700 years ago), would have been robust enough to withstand the first few millennia of civilized humans. However, with the advent of industrial means of production, the rate (economists call it "efficiency") of civilized development suddenly began to increase in an exponential fashion. More and more holes in the natural structure started to appear as the pace of raiding the natural world began to proceed at an increasingly reckless rate. While some of those who lived at the margins of this artificial structure of civilization could perceive the destabilizing effects of this process on nature, most of those who lived within civilization could see only progress developing at faster and faster rates while remaining insulated from the effects of this progress on the entire framework of life. The existence of an alternative structure within nature began to encourage the development of a myopic, civilization-centric mindset. The fatal flaw of this way of thinking, of course, was always the mistaken belief that civilization exists parallel to, and thus outside of, the natural world, when in reality it is an inescapable fact that civilization rests upon the very structure that it is literally dead set on tearing down. For civilization, there is no alternative to destruction of the natural world and therefore it has no other path than self-destruction. Even without the constant acceleration of growth in civilization, the sheer strain of a civilization of seven billion-going-on-nine billion sapiens and the bare minimum amount of materials and pollution required to keep them all alive to a standard that the political left finds acceptable easily outstrips nature's ability to provide at the given rate of change many times over. Civilization, therefore, is not an alternative or successor to nature, but more like a tumorous growth that feeds off of nature even as it destroys her. Tumors are not a type of external pathogenic condition in organisms, but rather a sort of imbalanced "runaway" growth of endogenous cells that no longer respond to normal signals to stop multiplying. Normal rates of cell growth are not typically problematic nor are the cells themselves inherently dangerous under nominal conditions. Cells normally divide in order to replenish dead cells and maintain homeostatic functioning within an organism. Once again, we see that it is not the fact that things change (in this case, cellular mitosis) that is the problem, but rather the rate at which that change occurs (the difference between homeostasis and cancer). One can then surmise that the "inevitability" of civilized progress is, like cancer, actually conditional. To consider civilization natural would be the same as accepting cancer as being the normal state of an organism.

When discussing rates of change in nature, it seems worthwhile to contemplate mass extinctions, as they provide illuminating examples of the principle of nature as rhythm. In particular, the extinction of most of the world's terrestrial megafauna (except for Africa) at the end of the last ice age has deep implications for anarcho-primitivist theory regarding the inherent sustainability of hunter-gatherer society. While the debate mainly between the "overkill" theorists and "climate change" advocates continues to play out, the evidence seems to more heavily support the overkill-by-humans argument without completely denying climate change's significance. Obviously, the humans in question were purely hunter-gatherer except perhaps for the domestication of dogs as companions and/or hunting partners ca. 30,000 years ago. From Wikipedia:

Outside the mainland of Afro-Eurasia, these megafaunal extinctions followed a highly distinctive landmass-by-landmass pattern that closely parallels the spread of humans into previously uninhabited regions of the world, and which shows no correlation with climatic history (which can be visualized with plots over recent geological time periods of climate markers such as marine oxygen isotopes or atmospheric carbon dioxide levels). Australia was struck first around 45,000 years ago, followed by Tasmania about 41,000 years ago (after formation of a land bridge to Australia about 43,000 years ago), Japan apparently about 30,000 years ago, North America 13,000 years ago, South America about 500 years later, Cyprus 10,000 years ago, the Antilles 6000 years ago, New Caledonia and nearby islands 3000 years ago, Madagascar 2000 years ago, New Zealand 700 years ago, the Mascarenes 400 years ago, and the Commander Islands 250 years ago. Nearly all of the world's isolated islands could furnish similar examples of extinctions occurring shortly after the arrival of Homo sapiens, though most of these islands, such as the Hawaiian Islands, never had terrestrial megafauna, so their extinct fauna were smaller.

An analysis of Sporormiella fungal spores (which derive mainly from the dung of megaherbivores) in swamp sediment cores spanning the last 130,000 years from Lynch's Crater in Queensland, Australia showed that the megafauna of that region virtually disappeared about 41,000 years ago, at a time when climate changes were minimal; the change was accompanied by an increase in charcoal, and was followed by a transition from rainforest to fire-tolerant sclerophyll vegetation. The high-resolution chronology of the changes supports the hypothesis that human hunting alone eliminated the megafauna, and that the subsequent change in flora was most likely a consequence of the elimination of browsers and an increase in fire. The increase in fire lagged the disappearance of megafauna by about a century, and most likely resulted from accumulation of fuel once browsing stopped. Over the next several centuries grass increased; sclerophyll vegetation increased with a lag of another century, and a sclerophyll forest developed after about another thousand years. During two periods of climate change about 120 and 75 thousand years ago, sclerophyll vegetation had also increased at the site in response to a shift to cooler, drier conditions; neither of these episodes had a significant impact on megafaunal abundance. Similar conclusions regarding the culpability of human hunters in the disappearance of Pleistocene megafauna were obtained via an analysis of a large collection of eggshell fragments of the flightless Australian bird Genyornis newtoni and from analysis of Sporormiella fungal spores from a lake in eastern North America.
The following two passages are taken from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I've reproduced the passages below in their entirety because I feel that they merit reading by anyone who doubts the human factor in prehistoric megafaunal extinction. Taking Australia first as a case study:

Some scholars try to exonerate our species, placing the blame on the vagaries of the climate (the usual scapegoat in such cases). Yet it is hard to believe that Homo sapiens was completely innocent. There are three pieces of evidence that weaken the climate alibi, and implicate our ancestors in the extinction of the Australian megafauna.
Firstly, even though Australia's climate changed 45,000 years ago, it wasn't a very remarkable upheaval. It's hard to see how the new weather patterns alone could have caused such a massive extinction. It's common today to explain anything and everything as the result of climate change, but the truth is that earth's climate never rests. It is in constant flux. Every event in history occurred against the background of some climate change.
In particular, our planet has experienced numerous cycles of cooling and warming. During the last million years, there has been an ice age on average every 100,000 years. The last one ran from about 75,000 to 15,000 years ago. Not unusually severe for an ice age, it had twin peaks, the first about 70,000 years ago and the second at about 20,000 years ago. The giant diprotodon appeared in Australia more than 1.5 million years ago and successfully weathered at least ten previous ice ages. It also survived the first peak of the last ice age, around 70,000 years ago. Why, then, did it disappear 45,000 years ago? Of course, if diprotodons had been the only large animal to disappear at this time, it might have been just a fluke. But more than 90 per cent of Australia's megafauna disappeared along with the diprotodon. The evidence is circumstantial, but it's hard to imagine that Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead of the chills.

Secondly, when climate change causes mass extinctions, sea creatures are usually hit as hard as land dwellers. Yet there is no evidence of any significant disappearance of oceanic fauna 45,000 years ago. Human involvement can easily explain why the wave of extinction obliterated the terrestrial megafauna of Australia while sparing that of the nearby oceans. Despite its burgeoning navigational abilities, Homo sapiens was still overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace.

Thirdly, mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia--whenever people settled another part of the Outer World. In these cases Sapiens guilt is irrefutable. For example, the megafauna of New Zealand--which had weathered the alleged 'climate change' of c. 45,000 years ago without a scratch--suffered devastating blows immediately after the first humans set foot on the islands. The Maoris, New Zealand's first Sapiens colonisers, reached the islands about 800 years ago. Within a couple of centuries, the majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 per cent of all bird species.

A similar fate befell the mammoth population of Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean (200 kilometres north of the Siberian coast). Mammoths had flourished for millions of years over most of the northern hemisphere, but as Homo sapiens spread--first over Eurasia and then over North America--the mammoths retreated. By 10,000 years ago there was not a single mammoth to be found in the world, except on a few remote Arctic islands, most conspicuously Wrangel. The mammoths of Wrangel continued to prosper for a few more millennia, then suddenly disappeared about 4,000 years ago, just when the first humans reached the island. 

And touching also on the Americas:

For decades, palaeontologists and zooarchaeologists--people who search for and study animal remains--have been combing the plains and mountains of the Americas in search of the fossilised bones of ancient camels and the petrified faeces of giant ground sloths. When they find what they seek, the treasures are carefully packed up and sent to laboratories, where every bone and every coprolite (the technical name for fossilised turds) is meticulously studied and dated. Time and again, these analyses yield the same results; the freshest dung balls and the most recent camel bones date to the period when humans flooded America, that is, between approximately 12,000 and 9000 BC. Only in one area have scientists discovered younger dung balls: on several Caribbean islands, in particular Cuba and Hispaniola, they found petrified ground-sloth scat dating to about 5000 BC. This is exactly the time when the first humans managed to cross the Caribbean Sea and settle these two large islands.

In reality, people probably should not be so hard on their own species when it comes to these mass extinctions. Other species, given the necessary conditions, have done just as much damage on their own scale. The brown tree snake accidentally introduced to Guam, the cane toad intentionally introduced to Australia, the kudzu vine currently devouring the southern United States--all have done their fair share of "ecological devastation". Organisms are designed to be opportunistic, and when a creature or plant is introduced into virgin land, it will glut itself on the available resources until some force arrives to strike a new equilibrium with it, whether that force be a new predator, new defensive adaptations by prey, or simply starvation for having eaten up absolutely everything it could. Like the above creatures, the hunter-gatherers who proceeded to exterminate the megafauna of the New World and Australia were acting more or less on instinct, which would explain the symmetry in outcomes in both locales despite complete lack of communication. They did not intentionally evolve the intelligence necessary to pull off massive mammoth slaughters, and they also did not cause a land bridge to appear between Russia and Alaska. People had no way of knowing better. They had an unfair advantage over the megafauna and they kept capitalizing on it until things started to even out. The few surviving megafauna of North America--namely, the bison, bears, wild cats, moose, and other ungulates--eventually got wise to human predation and it got significantly more difficult to nab one. This is presumably how a natural equilibrium is supposed to get established in the wake of a new imbalance, and the more sudden the introduction of a novel element into an established environment, the more time is necessary before equilibrium can be re-established. When the brown tree snake came to Guam, the native birds had no evolved wariness or defenses against snakes at all. Twelve native bird species are now extinct. However, if the snakes were left on the island long enough without human attempts at meddling, it would surely soon starve for having eaten everything there was to eat. An island is a precarious and fragile ecosystem. Witness Easter Island's inhabitants consuming their resources to the brink of self-annihilation. With the Maori of Aoterroa/New Zealand, the initial abundance of the giant flightless moa birds induced a sort of shortsighted wastefulness in the newly arrived Polynesians:
Moa may have been hunted to extinction within a century of human arrival to New Zealand. Moa made such easy prey that by AD 1200 the hunting of Moa alone provided food surpluses sufficient to provide for the settling of large villages up to 3 hectares. These villages were permanent coastal encampments from which bands would set out on several week hunts to slaughter and carry back Moa. Over 300 Moa butchering sites are known, 117 on South Island which together account for some 100,000-500,000 Moa. With such abundance came a good deal of waste: as much as 50% of usable weight was discarded in the field. At around the same time as hunting was at it peak, the forests of South Island were burned off. The extraordinary abundance of food resources supported a population of as many as 10,000 people. However, by the late 1400s the Moa hunting society collapsed. By about A.D. 1400 all moa are generally thought to have become extinct, along with the Haast's Eagle which had relied on them for food.--http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/moa.html
Moa may have been hunted to extinction within a century of human arrival to New Zealand. Moa made such easy prey that by AD 1200 the hunting of Moa alone provided food surpluses sufficient to provide for the settling of large villages up to 3 hectares. These villages were permanent coastal encampments from which bands would set out on several week hunts to slaughter and carry back Moa. Over 300 Moa butchering sites are known, 117 on South Island which together account for some 100,000-500,000 Moa. With such abundance came a good deal of waste: as much as 50% of usable weight was discarded in the field. At around the same time as hunting was at it peak, the forests of South Island were burned off. The extraordinary abundance of food resources supported a population of as many as 10,000 people. However, by the late 1400s the Moa hunting society collapsed. By about A.D. 1400 all moa are generally thought to have become extinct, along with the Haast's Eagle which had relied on them for food. - See more at: http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/moa.html#sthash.LZ4TC8hy.dpuf
Moa may have been hunted to extinction within a century of human arrival to New Zealand. Moa made such easy prey that by AD 1200 the hunting of Moa alone provided food surpluses sufficient to provide for the settling of large villages up to 3 hectares. These villages were permanent coastal encampments from which bands would set out on several week hunts to slaughter and carry back Moa. Over 300 Moa butchering sites are known, 117 on South Island which together account for some 100,000-500,000 Moa. With such abundance came a good deal of waste: as much as 50% of usable weight was discarded in the field. At around the same time as hunting was at it peak, the forests of South Island were burned off. The extraordinary abundance of food resources supported a population of as many as 10,000 people. However, by the late 1400s the Moa hunting society collapsed. By about A.D. 1400 all moa are generally thought to have become extinct, along with the Haast's Eagle which had relied on them for food. - See more at: http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/moa.html#sthash.LZ4TC8hy.dpuf
Moa may have been hunted to extinction within a century of human arrival to New Zealand. Moa made such easy prey that by AD 1200 the hunting of Moa alone provided food surpluses sufficient to provide for the settling of large villages up to 3 hectares. These villages were permanent coastal encampments from which bands would set out on several week hunts to slaughter and carry back Moa. Over 300 Moa butchering sites are known, 117 on South Island which together account for some 100,000-500,000 Moa. With such abundance came a good deal of waste: as much as 50% of usable weight was discarded in the field. At around the same time as hunting was at it peak, the forests of South Island were burned off. The extraordinary abundance of food resources supported a population of as many as 10,000 people. However, by the late 1400s the Moa hunting society collapsed. By about A.D. 1400 all moa are generally thought to have become extinct, along with the Haast's Eagle which had relied on them for food. - See more at: http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/moa.html#sthash.LZ4TC8hy.dpuf
The birds, like the dodo, had no fear of humans and were easily caught. The Maori were said to be extremely wasteful with the meat, only keeping the tastiest portions and letting the rest rot. True, both the Maori and the Rapa Nui came from Polynesian agricultural stock and it could be argued that their imprudence somehow stems from that cultural background, but on the whole that argument seems weak. At the very least, it seems doubtful that a group of hunter-gatherers transported to a pristine island in the Pacific would have behaved all that differently, except that maybe they'd die off much sooner for want of having taro and pigs to start off with.

This characterization of ancient peoples as wasteful and imprudent with their natural resources stands in stark contrast to the image of indigenous people that most anarcho-primitivists and even the indigenous peoples themselves hold of their ancestors, who, it is claimed, have always lived with nothing but reverence and respect for nature and have always sought balance with the environment, making use of every part of hunted game, and so on and so forth. One way to resolve this contradiction, of course, is to just simply ignore zooarchaeological evidence and go on reveling in noble savage myths. I suspect many anarcho-primitivists will proceed to do just that due to being ideologically invested in these myths. Indeed, most indigenous peoples take serious offense at the suggestion that their ancestors were solely responsible for the extinction of most of the rare animals and plants in their country. For example, both native Hawaiians and Maori insist that their ancestors always taught them not to be greedy with game and fish, and there is truth to this. Taboos concerning when and under what circumstances an animal may be taken, for example, are numerous in such cultures, and it is clear to see from ethnographic accounts and ongoing cultural practices that waste is and was frowned upon. However, the assumption that, in the absence of any actual historical evidence, the ancient Polynesians were so conserving of resources from the very beginning, is contradicted by the archaeological evidence. One should not necessarily conclude that the Hawaiians or Maori are being disingenuous, but it does appear that they suffer from a sort of cultural amnesia regarding that early period of their history when their ancestors very understandably glutted themselves on all the low-hanging fruit. Only after this initial gluttony did the various Polynesian cultures begin to change, and this was only possible probably after some form of damage or reduction in easily-obtained wild food became apparent, i.e. species extinctions. Culture finally caught up to reality and this new-found respect for nature became ingrained in many Polynesian cultures' beliefs; therefore it is not surprising that native Polynesians take such exception to the notion that they were responsible for species extinctions early in their history. It just shows how thorough and powerful culture can be. The first Polynesian colonizers had to "eat spiders" for a while before they decided that that was not the best course, and now no one recalls ever having eaten spiders, but one can be fairly certain that at some point, somebody did.

Culture can be almost any kind of story, and in that sense it's a great hoax, and a new culture cannot be said ipso facto to be any less authentic and legitimate than an established one, but attention should be paid to the likely consequences of any given culture if one were in the business of choosing between multiple options. A culture based on detachment from nature and non-stop economic growth implies a certain set of consequences, whereas a culture based on sparse, low-tech band societies implies a different set. As Kaczynski pointed out over 20 years ago, popularizing an alternative culture to that of industrial civilization is a stratagem that we can and should use to change people's relationship to nature. In all likelihood, it's probably the only viable option we have at our disposal. Culture, like nature, needs sufficient time to catch up to a sudden novelty. The novel The Lord of the Flies and the like all riff on the assumption that without authority, humans will invariably devolve back to what Hobbes always said we were: nasty brutes who incessantly kill one another. While this outcome would almost certainly be true in the short term, it would be strange to think that, given enough time of this, some sort of cultural solution would not organically arise to address the problems introduced by the original anomalous situation, the same way it has for the Polynesians and for all cultures who have weathered the mistakes of their early pasts and have matured enough to find stability with their environment. That's what culture is, after all--an amalgamation of attempts to solve recurring problems by literally changing the way an entire society thinks on the most fundamental level, even to the point of collective amnesia of things ever having been different. The domestication of fire, for example, was a significant achievement for humans, and I am not aware of any anarcho-primitivists who would go so far as to reject even fire as a technology. However, fire can be dangerous, so it almost certainly took a long time--generations--for people to make all the mistakes one could possibly make with fire before all the variables were grasped  and humans were mature enough to handle fire responsibly. The pace of change in the adoption of this radical new technology still fell within the bounds of what the human mind could grasp, and the damage inflicted upon nature via human fire was incorporated and transformed into a new synergy, with organisms adapting and even benefiting from, say, controlled burns of forest understories. Thus, by means of slowly adopting a new technology, both humans and nature had time to integrate the novelty and produce a new synergy. The novel essentially becomes natural by virtue of acceptable rate of change, as opposed to any sort of static, inherent quality of "natural" or "artificial". Currently, it seems that human culture is trying but failing to incorporate the novelties that technological development keeps throwing at us. The rate of change is not only too fast, but it keeps accelerating. Culture is losing the race badly. This would be the main qualitative difference between, say, a culture learning to incorporate fire-based technology and our current situation, where we cannot even all agree on the basic issues to begin with. Even in the case of early sapiens seemingly having caused the extinction of the majority of the planet's megafauna wherever they roamed outside of Africa, they still did not enact change at a rate that outstripped the biosphere's ability to adapt. The planet survived the quaternary extinction event, just as it did the previous waves of massive extinctions long before humans were around. Certainly, the killing of the terrestrial megafauna came nowhere close in terms of thoroughness or planetary impact to, say, the Cretaceous-Paleogene event that wiped out non-avian dinosaurs, or the even earlier Permian-Triassic event (evocatively termed "the great dying"). The catastrophes of the past, while appearing explosive in historical retrospect, still occurred slowly enough to abide by nature's rhythm of change. By contrast, what technology continues to demonstrate to us in terrifying clarity is that the catastrophes of the present and the future will continue to occur and accumulate at ever faster rates, achieving an unprecedented type of novelty: the truly artificial, the fundamentally other, the collapse of synthesis, the antithesis of existence.

*For a good read on the madness that is invasive plant hysteria in the US, see Timothy Lee Scott's Invasive Plant Medicine

7 comments:

  1. This is a great post. You might want to check out Lawrence Cookson's Ecopsychology essay "A Definition for Wildness." You can find it at http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/eco.2011.0028.

    I've also added you to the Recommended Blogs section of the Freedom Club website (http://uncfc.org) and the FC Journal website (http://thejournal.link).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John,

      Thank you very much for the accolade and listing my blog at the above sites. I always wondered if anyone would take up the Freedom Club moniker. It's a great name and of course makes an important reference. One point to nitpick: the title of my blog is wilderness before the dawn as opposed to wildness before the dawn, which is how it appears listed at both the website and the journal site.

      I look forward to exploring the links you've provided. Be well.

      Delete
    2. Whoops. I'll fix that link name. Look forward to reading more of your posts.

      Delete
    3. You've given me a lot to think about Ziqian ! If Harari's book is true(and I have no way to disprove it as of this moment) then I have to adjust my thoughts on A-P. I'm only 7 months down the road of A-P(sort of crash-coursing if you will). A year ago I would have proudly called myself a progressive, even though I didn't think they were radical enough....among many other things. Came across another book a few days ago by Pat Shipman titled "The Invaders:How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction" Have not read it but I guess it supports your post to some extent. Have heard it said that maybe we should never have come down from the trees let alone out of the water.....sounds a little self sacrificing, I don't know. Thanks again,Ken p.s.can't believe there are not more comments,too intimidating for some, maybe too infuriating for others...?

      Delete
    4. You've given me a lot to think about Ziqian ! If Harari's book is true(and I have no way to disprove it as of this moment) then I have to adjust my thoughts on A-P. I'm only 7 months down the road of A-P(sort of crash-coursing if you will). A year ago I would have proudly called myself a progressive, even though I didn't think they were radical enough....among many other things. Came across another book a few days ago by Pat Shipman titled "The Invaders:How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction" Have not read it but I guess it supports your post to some extent. Have heard it said that maybe we should never have come down from the trees let alone out of the water.....sounds a little self sacrificing, I don't know. Thanks again,Ken p.s.can't believe there are not more comments,too intimidating for some, maybe too infuriating for others...?

      Delete
    5. Hi Kevin,

      Thank you for the kind words and for your interest. I've been away from blogging for a while now, as I've lost access to a computer and have only a tablet. I hope to get a computer soon so I can start up again. I have an unfinished essay that might address some of your thoughts and questions regarding where we "went wrong". I thank you for sharing my writing and hope you will check back in a few weeks, as hopefully I'll have new content before year's end.

      George

      Delete