Civilization’s Fatal Flaw, the Root Cause of Our Problems – (And How toAddress It)

(Kalamazoo. All images via Wiki Images.) 

“What would a just city look like?” 

A friend recently wrote to me, asking that question. I responded:

What would a sustainable city look like? 
What would a healthy city look like, one that doesn’t suffer from high rates of cancer, heart disease, digestive disorders, obesity and the other so called “diseases of civilization?” 
What would a city look like without hunger? Pollution? Urban decay? War?

It’s impossible to know, because in all of human history there has never been such a city. We have exactly 0 models to draw on in 10,000 years. 

This can be a shocking realization for those of us who do our best to try to solve problems and make the world a better place. 

In fact, all of those things, unsustainability, collapse, oppression and even slavery, social injustice, ecological collapse, pollution, war, exploitive relationship with nature… are part of the common definition of “agrarian civilization,” the type of society that produces cities. Look it up on wikipedia, or elsewhere, and that’s what you’ll find as part of the basic definition. 

You may also learn from a click or two on that wikipedia article that the scientists who study such things class human societies by their “intensivity,” the input/output ratio (EROEI) of their most basic energy transaction, the production of their food. How much energy does it cost people to produce their energy? If you spend a LITTLE energy and get a LOT back, that’s a good situation. If you spend a LOT and only get a LITTLE back, that situation isn’t going to last long. And these researchers have documented a direct correlation between this ratio and all those things we see as “problems.” From this perspective, they’re not really issolated “problems,” they’re are “design trade-offs” or symptoms of the larger problem, which is the low EROEI of the way civilizations meet their needs. 

(A Horticultural settlement, build with 1 year’s sun energy from one small area.)

Hunter-gatherers have a very high EROEI, since they put very little energy IN to their system. So it’s no coincidence that they also have the most egalitarian societies, and the lowest ecological impact, and the fewest “problems”.  Horticultural (forest gardeners) and Pastoral societies, are next on the list, putting in a little energy and getting a big return on that investment. They generally have fairly equitable cultures, few wars, great health, and very low environmental impact. Finally there’s agrarian civilization, the farmers and city builders, which are called “intensive cultures.” They  put a lot of energy into their food production to get a small amount back, and this is where all these “problems” explode.  

We’re the most energy intensive society in the history of the planet, probably by 400 times. And so it may be that we’re 400 times more destructive….

(How many years of sun energy did this take to build?)

I mean that literally. According to USDA research, American agriculture is approaching an EROEI of where we spend 400 calories for every 1 calorie of food we produce. 

This high input problem creates an energy deficit which must be paid in some way, by something or someone. We “pay” with the “problems” above. We’re literally just converting one form of energy to another. 

And this is why all the attempts we’ve made for 10,000 years to “solve” the symptoms above without changing the underlying EROEI problem must be paid for by making another symptom worse. (meanwhile, there’s general consensus based on historical evidence that changes in this basic EROEI have always automatically improved all of these “problems,” but that’s for a future blog.) 

This is the basic question of our politics, choosing who will pay for our civilized society, the civilization tax.  

For example, say we want to address social injustice at home. So, following the common logic used by Kalamazoo’s elected officials, we use more fossil fuels to produce more economic growth and hence wealth, so there’s more available for the underprivileged. Of course, we pay for this increased justice with faster climate change, ecosystem collapse and pollution. 

Or perhaps we use slave energy from other countries to pay for increased social justice at home and pay with war, environmental degradation, etc.  

Or we try to decrease climate change by using less fossil energy and we end up creating slower economic growth and thus increased social injustice, worse health, more hunger, etc. at home. 

Or we attempt to replace fossil energy with nuclear, knowing that this will be paid for by some number of children getting cancer, and tolerating occasional catastrophic disaster. 

Or we try to address hunger by intensifying the caloric output of our economy. We convert low calorie vegetable production to corn and beef, and we exacerbate the “diseases of civilization,” destroy habitat and worsen ecosystem collapse and climate change. 

Or we try to address all these problems domestically by oppressing people and ecosystems elsewhere. 

Or we try to be more “sustainable,” and pay for it like the fairly sustainable cities of ancient China did, through extreme injustice, oppression and poor health.      

Worse still, when we spend energy to solve one of these symptoms as isolated problems, we add to the Energy Invested side of our society’s operating budget, making all the problems worse. 

So one conclusion we can draw is that we need to “go deep” with our efforts, cut to the true cause of the problems, this EROEI issue. This EROEI factor needs to be part of the discussion of all our attempts to create positive change. 

But this is just one reason why all of our attempts to “solve” these “problems” for the last 10,000 years have failed. Another aspect of civilization’s built-in conundrum is the design “trade-off” of hierarchy. Afterall, hierarchy, or the ability for some individuals to “outsource” the production of their basic necessities to allow for specialization, is the very point of agrarian civilization. The reality of that basic situation is that somebody is made to toil to meet everyone’s needs, so that others get to spend their time making art, sitting at the heads of prestigious foundations, practicing “law,” working in local government, or other such things that make cities happen. Notice that no farmer in history has ever had a statue made to honor him or her. 

This situation is fundamentally inequitable and unjust, no matter how you choose who will pay that price.   

But this means there’s a built-in dis-incentive for those who are favored with privilege in such a system to change things. Those wealthy whites with power may complain about racism, the most dominant means of “choosing” the losers in American society, but replacing racism and plutocracy with meritocracy means condemning their children, their descendants to live without their privilege. 

It’s important for us to remember that the modern-day institution of the Foundation was not created to fix problems or right wrongs, but to establish a mechanism of protecting and conserving the “social order” that benefited the families of the wealthy. This was at a time of social uprising, when the wealthy had to convert just enough of their financial wealth into “social capital” to keep their own heads from rolling. They were created by the basic EROEI dynamic, are fed and rewarded by it – and the first goal of their foundations is to maintain that dynamic. 
Or as musician, philanthropist and social critic Peter Buffett (who also happens to be the son of Warren Buffett) bravely puts it:
Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.

If solving problems was really the goal, shouldn’t the obvious solution be to just stop causing the problems? (By the way, I’ll be writing more about Mr. Buffett’s insightful Op Ed in the future.) 

We have to recognize that we privileged Americans are no different than Peter and other wealthy folks. Virtually all of us “Liberal White Do-gooders” in what Peter calls the Charitable Industrial Complex have this same built-in conflict of interest. We all reap the privileges of a destructive oil economy, social injustice, cheap shoes made in Indonesian sweat shops. 

So a second lesson is that we need to analyze where the benefits of our actions accrue, who our actions truly serve, and how we can ensure that we’re really helping what we say we’re helping, so that we’re not just helping ourselves get our picture in the paper, a “Green-trepeneur of the year” statue for our mantle.

Good Permaculture design offers tools and solutions to help us design actions that are mindful of these two lessons: It always seeks to address this “Return on Energy Investment” issue of institutions, and it helps communities being served “Catch and Store” energy and income streams from aid projects.

Most importantly, it helps to create a new, lower EROEI system for meeting our needs, a system that will necessarily have fewer “problems,” right underneath the failing existing system. 

So, how should we spend our time? What kind of efforts should we invest in? What kind of actions should we support and how should we fund them? 

Permaculture offers some very unexpected and interesting answers to these questions. 

Very soon, I’ll be sharing more about the practical specifics of using Permaculture to design effective actions that can help us create the true, effective social change we want to see. 

And how this “good work” can make our lives more joyful, secure and resilient at the same time. 

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned….

For part 2 in this series, click here:

2 thoughts on “Civilization’s Fatal Flaw, the Root Cause of Our Problems – (And How toAddress It)

  1. Terrific post! Enlightening and inspiring.I'm reminded of a lesson from early childhood that I continue to take quite literally and apply broadly, “Clean up your own mess!”, appears to address only the back end of a process, but to actually be true to this admonition one has to seriously consider the front end inputs and the entire process within a finite system – who pays, with what and what are the collateral effects. Keep writing! -Karyn

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