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Dylan Glynn

William H. Kotke: Civilization falls; a new culture emerges

We must invent a whole new human culture. The human species cannot exist in perpetuity on the earth unless it lives in biological balance with the life around it. Running a net deficit drawdown of the earth’s fertility will not work. Is it not strange that children can understand this statement but world leaders cannot?

William H. Kotke, Countercurrents.org

Ten thousand years in the past, the earth existed in a condition of health. This was a condition in which all of the earth’s ecosystems existed in ecological climax. When we experience a wound on our bodies, first a scab is formed and then gradually it returns to a condition of health as it originally existed. Ecosystems function in the same manner. After a wound such as fire or flood, the “first aid” group moves in, the pioneer species, which are usually annual forbs and grasses. As the bodies of these plants ultimately becomes soil the soil chemistry is prepared for the next succession which normally would be small bushes and larger forbs. As the progression continues, larger bushes, small trees, larger trees and then finally back to the climax of high species diversity which maintains itself in a state of equilibrium and health.

For several million years the human species was successful in maintaining balance with nature. When agriculture first began, the earth was in a state of health. With farming and herding humans began to drain the ecosystems of their fertility in order to collect “surpluses.” Soils became exhausted, deforestation occurred and overgrazing was rampant.

Half of China was once a thriving temperate zone forest, the Indus Valley was once a thriving semi-arid grasslands, Mesopotamia, once considered an Eden, now has one third of the soils (of Iraq) so salted from Babylonian irrigation five thousand years ago it still cannot be used. The deforestation and over grazing of that watershed has caused the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to extend their mouths into the Gulf for one hundred and eighty five miles, all filled in by erosion material from that watershed!

North Africa was considered to be the “breadbasket” of both the Greek and Roman empires. Now that semi-arid ecosystem is gone and some of the ports from which the grain, meat and hides were shipped are ten and fifteen miles from the water, all filled in with erosion material. With the advance of civilization, the great forests of Europe were destroyed as well as the migrating salmon and much of the wildlife.

When the Industrial Revolution began, European population began to explode and ultimately an estimated five hundred million people began to invade the planet from Europe in the form of empire. Now only ten percent of the earth’s closed canopy forest remains. Now, in the last forty years the earth has lost one third of its arable land. Now, it is estimated the ninety per cent of the large fish in the ocean are gone. Now, many of the large underground water aquifers are being drawn down toward zero. When we add chemical pollution, plastics in the ocean and the melting of the ice caps, even civilized people are beginning to distinguish a crisis. An exploding population based on dwindling resources will not work!

How could this happen? What went wrong? Surely the first agriculturists did not start out to ruin the life of the earth. Previously, forager/hunter cultures were adapted to their food sources. People lived on the salmon migrations, the bison herds, the reindeer herds and many other sources such as a migratory mode in which they followed the seasons and natural harvests in a circular fashion. This created the form of their culture. Anthropologists calculate that roving forager/hunter bands averaged twenty-eight people. Obviously this group would need to be cooperative in order to survive. Traveling on foot they wouldn’t be trying to hang on to many material possessions when what they needed could be created out of the landscape where they were. Sharing, cooperation and humility were their values and competition and arrogance were discouraged. In those times the women were powerful. They gathered the vegetable foodstuffs which anthropology says was seventy per cent of their diet. They cooked the food, they tanned the hides, they sewed the garments, they bore the children and looked after them. The women and children grouped around the campfire as the men because of their strength, tended toward the periphery of  the camp to defend it and to hunt in the area.

When agriculture began, the functional relationships of humans inverted, there was no linear development because the form of the culture simply developed around the food supply. When the people stopped in one place on the land to begin agriculture, they established civis, village life. Historically, they began to farm the soil toward exhaustion and graze the landscape toward denudation. The surpluses were stored in the village. Thus, the strongest, the males, had to be organized to guard the valuables. This was the nascent seed of the patriarchy and the warrior cult. This functional relationship around the food supply also encouraged materialism, competition and private property. Soon, coercive hierarchical command systems developed into empires, such as Sumer and Babylon.

This new type of society grouped around agriculture, started out on its trajectory extorting the fertility of the ecosystems in order to expand power, populations and material wealth. In the beginning it must have seemed that the fertility was endless but we now see the result of that imbalance. That imbalance is the suicide of the human species. In previous history the empires believed the new “frontiers” were infinite but we have now reached the final round. As the population continues to explode and the underpinnings dwindle there will be conflict to see who gets what remains, until that too is gone. The patriarchy, that stunted aberration of a healthy, gender balanced society, knows only conflict, war and consumption/destruction. That is the final scenario. Unless the laws of physics are changed, there will be no silver bullet, there is no fix, this is the end.

The narrative created by the ruling elite of that human culture called civilization has inculcated a bedrock belief in linear increase. This is the idea of inevitable progress. This subconscious belief system will hold the consumerist masses enthralled as they look for the silver bullet or the easy technological fix until the last inch of topsoil and the last drop of potable water is reached. It is not a matter of tinkering with the “system” when the entire “system” is a cancerous tumor body on the living earth.

So what is the problem? The problem is that the human species cannot live on the earth in perpetuity unless it lives in biological balance with the life around it. How is that rectified? It is rectified by the human species living in biological balance with the life around it.

The Seed Communities

These are times of apocalyptic desperation. We must invent a whole new human culture. If we are mature, adult humans existing on this living planet we would desire the positive – a healthy earth, our home. This suggests a guiding principle for a new culture of restoration. Restore the earth to health. This is an initiation into a new level of human existence when we actually take responsibility for our existence and the existence of the life force of the earth. How do we do this? We re-inhabit the earth with small colonies/communities that are living in balance. A responsible human society, facing a dilemma such as we are would sponsor any experimental community to find a way out. But no need; we can do this ourselves. As we establish these communities of ecological stability around the planet we will have the possibility that some of them will survive and spread to become the enduring human culture of the future. As the world falls around them these islands of stability, these survival groups, may endure. Possibly, the image of an old, worn out cultural form setting seed is appropriate.

As the future loomed ahead of us intuitive responses began to percolate from the population in the past era. A compelling idea of setting boundaries is the bioregionalism movement. Rather than the straight line grid system over the earth established by the industrial society we would establish boundaries according to watersheds. This will establish the boundaries of our living world as to how the water flows, a biological unit or entity.

In our village watershed we begin the ecological restoration. We can begin with the recently created ideas of Permaculture, a method of food growing originated by the Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holgrem. This method of food growing can produce more food per acre than the industrial agricultural system. It does this by mimicking the ecological pattern. A wide variety of perennial plants are placed so that plant “guilds” are created whereby the association of plants aid each other. This results in a rudimentary, permanent ecology which builds soil and aids in water retention. A forest garden aspect of Permaculture can produce much more protein per acre of fruit and nuts than can grazing cattle. Other aspects of the Permaculture design would emphasize large and small bushes, forbs, cacti, grasses, mushrooms and any other type plants that would fit into the design. The idea is to place a large variety of species into niches that are offered in the design so as to maximize the photosynthetic income.

In the Amazon rainforest anthropologists describe not slash and burn but native rainforest gardens. When they clear an area for a garden they leave any beneficial plants or trees in the plot. They then begin adding other productive species until the plot resembles just another part of the rainforest to the uninformed observer.  Anthropologists say that these plots of several  acres or so may contain in the order of two hundred species. In a Permaculture design wildlife will be more attracted because of the greater diversity, especially of insects.

Birds are especially important in the design because they carry seeds from other areas in their droppings which helps increase the diversity of the design. It also contains diverse minerals important to the soils. Very important is beaver restoration. Beavers, with their dams, create rich habitat for trees, bushes, animals, fish and wet land plants. The dams raise the water table in the area and when the beavers leave, a flat beaver meadow where the dam water had been remains as a rich soil.

The use of perennial plants means a permanent design where the soil is not disturbed. Water retention is increased and as leaves and organic debris fall, topsoil is increased. This serves to illustrate another basic principle. Rather than draining the fertility of the earth, by filling niches and creating more diversity we add to the photosynthetic income and live from the increase.
Close to our housing we create the kitchen garden which will be a mix of perennial plants, annual plants and herbs. Farther out will be zones for bushes and hardy plants and then further the forest garden with trees inter-planted with smaller useful species. Even further will be the “wild” areas of native ecology which would be assisted to recover in whatever manner possible .

Much has been done in recent years to create new methods of building shelter. There are housing designs now that can heat and cool themselves without outside energy inputs. In our watershed we would want to build with local materials. Recent materials are; straw bales, cob (a mixture of sand and clay), adobe, rammed earth, bamboo and wood. These materials can be used by regular people and the methods can be quickly learned and put into practice. One design that adds much to the shelter is an attached greenhouse. In winter the south facing greenhouse accumulates heat that can be drafted into the house and can provide a pleasant sitting room to enjoy the winter sun. In summer the heat can be drafted outside.

We could not do better in our new community of self-sufficiency than to pattern the community values based upon the behavior of the life of the earth. One basic pattern is diversity within unity. There are diverse species within whole, unified ecologies such as a forest ecology or a desert ecology. Within our bodies there is a diversity of cells and organs contained within the unity of us. We find the sharing of energies in ecosystems. The leaves fall from the tree and are digested by the thousands of species within the soil community. The excrement of this community is held in solution to be taken up by plant roots and by the trees. Usually the mycelium (underground body of the mushroom) attaches its hairs to the fine roots of trees and plants so that energies can be exchanged. This is important because the mushrooms cannot photosynthesize. Vital relationships and shared energies exist throughout ecosystems. Ecosystems also display balance and adaptability.

Within the culture of civilization parliamentary structures with political parties are used. This is consonant with the culture of competition/conflict. When fifty-one per cent gain power, forty-nine are aggrieved and continue the conflict/competition. The Hopi elders say, “Why should we adopt a tribal council form of government urged on us by the U.S. when we have successfully governed our villages for a thousand years by consensus so that there is no aggrieved minority.” Consensus government is a government of cooperation. In the context of industrial society many points of view compete for attention coming from the many diverse interests in that society. If we exist in a self-sufficient community restoring the earth’s life and raising our own food we will be protecting our food supply and watershed and we would then politically re-present the life of the earth.

The Economics of Life
The economics of village life are simple. It begins with photosynthetic income. With sun, soil and water we create a new kind of economics. Any gardener knows that with these three factors we create life which begets new life. In a self-sufficient community we grow what we need. Food, oils, heat, healing substances, building materials and even clothing from flax and hemp are possible. This is the economics of self-sufficiency and non-dependency.

Village Society
We want to defend the life force if for no other reason than it feeds us. Within the conflict/competition of civilization the opposite is true. After the birth trauma of industrial medicine the young advance to killing hundreds of people per hour on their video games. Then the youth are exposed to the mass media of violence where even thousands of years in the future in science fiction, humans are still killing each other with some kind of hand held weapon.

Consistently in the field of industrial medicine, not nurturing but killing is practiced with the use of anti-biotics and other toxins. Industrial agriculture offers the same with its vast array of poisons to kill insects, weeds and other life forms. The impact of the post traumatic syndrome that drives people into great fear and isolation that is caused by growing up in a society of violence /competition /conflict is so great that recently a million people have been killed in Iraq with seven million caused to become homeless and no one notices, nor do they care.

We do not want to live in that reality, nor do we have to. Our new culture will nurture life. As we return to nature we see that much of the adult activity of the natural world is devoted to nurturing the young. The birthing, the nesting and the teaching of the young take up much of adult life. In many tribes of our ancient human heritage such as the Hau de no sau nee, also called the Six Nations Iroquois of the Northeastern U. S., tribal council decisions are reviewed as to their impact on the seventh generation. The child-bearing women are a central focus of tribal life. This is from whence new life comes. In a life nurturing culture much social attention would be devoted to them. The pregnancy, the birthing, the nurturing, would be a central effort toward our attempt to raise children that are not emotionally damaged by their social environment. In our efforts we exchange fear and violence for love and laughter.

We Are Powerful

Dependency is not power it is control. Self-sufficient communities do not depend on the industrial food system to feed them nor do they depend on other hand outs from the industrial system to survive. We also have powerful resources with which to create our new world. We already have a vast network of many hundreds of eco-villages spread around the planet, pointed toward self-sufficiency. The Permaculture Movement has trainings and training centers spreading rapidly around the globe. In recent years alternative medicine has made a strong come back. Herbalism, energy medicine such as massage, Reiki and nutrition have returned.

Encounter groups have become popular as a means of therapy. We can learn a principle from our friends in the Navajo (Dine) culture. In their culture there are no isolated individualists. Their concept is that harmony is broken if one of the band is ill. It is not simply one individual but the whole band is put into disharmony when this occurs. Within the tribe are healers, called Singers. Each singer may know several “sings” and there are many dozens of sings each being appropriate for a particular malady. A sing may last a day, several days or up to a Nine Day, Day and Night Yebei Chi sing. The sing is attended not only by the individual but by the whole clan that is suffering the disharmony. At the beginning of the sing, the Singer creates a beautiful sand painting on the floor of the hogan, The individual is then placed sitting on the sand painting which is swept away at the end. This process illustrates the sense of a tribal community. It is our ancient culture that saw things in wholes not as isolated individuals in the lonely crowd.

The specter of seven billion people hurtling toward the abyss of no potable water, dwindling food supplies and immature patriarchs brandishing nuclear weapons is daunting. We do not have to board that train, we have a new world that we are creating.


The world-wide network of many hundreds of eco-villages can be found at: http://gen.ecovillage.org/
In Russia alone there are over four hundred eco-villages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBxV_RV7AgY
Examples of the range of Permaculture activities can be seen here: http://permaculturenews.org/
And here: https://www.discoverpermaculture.com/products/the-permaculture-circle
Here are examples of training centers for self-sufficient lifestyles: http://www.aprovecho.net/
And http://lostvalley.org/
Here is an example of trainings offered by shelter building centers: http://www.cobcottage.com/

William Kotke began as a ranch hand and then became a sawmill worker. Later activities were involved with the Civil Rights Movement (Congress of Racial Equality), Farmworkers’ Union organizing (California), organizer and representative in unions (SEIU & AFSCME), anti Vietnam war activities, Earth First! environmental group, and Native American Resistance at various locations. Mr. Kotke now lives in a remote location with a garden on a south facing hillside watered by spring water and with a wood stove surrounded by forest.

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Reprint of the underground classic book: THE FINAL EMPIRE: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future.

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