This article is more than ten years old but it still has much to offer in a conversation about the deep fragility that is built into all of our global systems.
This kind of articulation of what makes our systems fragile, is needed now more than ever. Without spelling out these fatal flaws we cannot see ourselves or our systems clearly…
If we cannot see our systems we will not be able to make sense of our predicament-laden world…
If we have no access to sense making, we will not be able to make good choices about our actions from here forward.))
A Culture of Dependence
Essential Human Activities | How We Did This Before Civilization Culture (30,000 years ago)
| How We Do It Now Under Civilization Culture
Before civilization culture, children were dependent on their parents for a period of about ten years, during which, following the model of most wild creatures, they spent most of their waking lives learning to be independent, through play.
So now let’s look at what happens to us in modern civilization culture:
- We’re dependent on our parents essentially until we get “full-time” work, which on average in North America is now age 23.
- Our education system teaches us nothing that is of any use in living independently. In fact, it “teaches” us that our lot in life is to work hard to get good marks (for which we’re dependent on that education system) so that we will be sufficiently attractive to potential employers that they will “offer” us a job.
- At this point we will become dependent on our employers, and on their business’ success and continuity, until we are wealthy enough to retire or dead, whichever comes first. That means for almost all of us we are dependent on the continued growth of the unsustainable global industrial economy.
- We are perpetually dependent on governments for our education services, our health services, and most transportation and other essential social services. If we are unfortunate enough to live in the US or a third world nation, we are also probably dependent on our employers for our health services.
- Because we are not taught to take responsibility for our own health, most of us are also dependent on doctors and their Big Pharma friends for our continued health and well-being.
- Because we no longer live in communities that are able to look after their own problems, most of us are dependent on centralized police and other security services that have acquired almost unlimited authority over us, for our “safety”.
- Because most of us no longer know how to (or live in areas where we cannot adequately) grow our own food or make or repair our our clothing, personal transportation vehicles, buildings and other essentials, we are dependent on a vast subsidized centralized global agribusiness oligopoly, on cheap materials and labour extorted from struggling nations, and on cheap energy in ever-increasing amounts, for these essentials of life.
- Because we have forgotten how to imagine and how to amuse ourselves, most of us have become dependent on mainstream media organizations, conglomerates that used to provide both information and entertainment, for our musical, audio and visual entertainment. Few seem to have noticed that most of the mainstream media have ceased providing any information at all, and those that still do are seemingly all in financial difficulty.
- Because virtually all of the additional wealth created in the last 40 years has accrued to the wealthiest 1% of the population, the rest of us have become dependent on ever-increasing amounts of indebtedness to be able to buy what we need to live.
- Because we live mostly in shoddy, vulnerable, built-to-fail buildings, and because our economy relies on just-in-time shipment of goods and materials around the globe, and is designed to be efficient, with no built-in redundancy, rather than effective, we are dependent upon a continuation of the cool, peaceful and stable (by historical standards) climate we have enjoyed for the last ten millennia.
- If we are fortunate enough to acquire enough wealth to retire, we are (unless we have a rare and generous defined benefit pension) dependent for the rest of our lives on substantial and consistent annual increases in stock market valuations to fund our retirement. That means we are dependent on the continued growth of the unsustainable global industrial economy, even when we are no longer contributing actively to it.
The chart above contrasts the dependencies of prehistoric and wild cultures, with those of today’s civilization culture.
I’m not saying we can or should attempt to live completely self-sufficient lives. I am saying that we are now at a stage where we are utterly dependent on institutions that are unwieldy, unsustainable, and collapsing. They are completely undependable.
An increasing number of us realize this, and have attempted to become more self-sufficient. How are we doing? Here’s my scorecard:
- Dependence on education systems: Worsening. We spend more and more of our lives in these largely useless and damaging systems, and most of us have been brainwashed to the point we believe that only “special” children can be deschooled and are capable of self-directed learning.
- Dependence on big corporate employers: Worsening. As employers dump more an more workers into the ranks of the unemployed, and as our over-stretched and debt-submerged economy teeters, more people are fighting for fewer jobs. Almost no one is learning how to make a living for themselves (our education systems don’t teach this), and most people have been brainwashed to believe they could never make a living for themselves.
- Dependence on governments: Staying the Same. It’s easy to blame governments for all our ills, but research consistently shows that it is their unwieldy size and detachment from the people they represent, not the non-competitive nature of governments, that is to blame for their inefficiency, and that large public organizations are actually more effective and just as efficient as private organizations doing the same work. Nevertheless, when national and state/provincial governments collapse, we’ll be in big trouble, because so few at the community level have the competencies needed to take over the services big government agencies and departments provide.
- Dependence on the medical establishment: Worsening. In most affluent nations health care costs are skyrocketing while quality of care is not improving, so health care systems are close to collapse. Most people don’t know how to prevent illness and accident, nor how to self-diagnose and self-treat even simple ailments. The health care system continues to encourage that ignorance, and what’s making it all worse is that the average age of our population is increasing, and hence the average citizen needs more services every year.
- Dependence on security authorities: Worsening. As we become more globalized and more mobile, we have become more anonymous and isolated from each other and hence more dependent on centralized institutions to keep us safe from each other. And as income and wealth disparities rise, so does injustice, anger, and desperation, and therefore crime, violence and war.
- Dependence on agribusiness: Worsening. Factory farming is now a global phenomenon. Affordable food now depends on massive subsidies, animal cruelty, homogenization and chemical treatment of everything we eat (and our soils), exploitative international trade, and availability of ever more cheap energy.
- Dependence on exploitative international trade: Worsening. Globalization continues to eviscerate the effective production of goods locally, and is now likewise making local provision of services non-viable. Increasingly the people of affluent nations no longer make anything, and provide ever fewer services. All we contribute to the economy is consumption.
- Dependence on cheap, abundant energy: Worsening. The achieved and possible improvements from renewable energy, technology, and our modest conservation efforts, are dwarfed by the soaring and insatiable energy demand from China and India, where almost everything that used to be made in affluent nations is now made, and whose people are seeking a US-style life and level of consumption and waste.
- Dependence on mainstream media: Staying the Same. We have won some victories online, and there is at least a voice to counter the corporatist media conglomerates, but that voice remains imperilled by corporations seeking to ‘own’ all the channels to and from the Internet. And the average citizen is just as dependent on the mainstream media for entertainment as ever, and is no longer critically consuming any information at all, just accepting the propaganda they’re fed.
- Dependence on increasing debt and credit: Worsening. Except for the wealthiest 1% of the population, real income has declined since the 1970s, and all the apparent increase in wealth is illusory — it’s all dependent on ever-increasing amounts of unrepayable debts. The “recovery” of the industrial growth economy now depends on cheap and abundant credit and a willingness of citizens to get even deeper into debt.
- Dependence on a stable climate: Worsening. Our economy is increasingly global, relying on global movement of people, products and materials anywhere we need them on short notice. And more and more of us are living in ghettos and shoddy buildings not built to last more than a few decades before they start to fall apart, and not built to endure violent climate events.
- Dependence on the unregulated industrial growth economy: Worsening. In addition to our reliance on this unsustainable economy for employment, energy, health, entertainment and essential services, we depend on it to maintain the value of our homes (our primary collateral for our ever-growing debt), investments and pensions. And as this economy falters, its corporate interests are pressuring their corporatist political friends to prop it up by dismantling or ignoring the few regulations that prevent them from becoming a psychopathic, oligopolistic clique of price-fixing, environmentally-ruinous thugs.
We are, in short, dependent on a complex set of unsustainable systems, and that dependence is getting worse. So what are we to do?
I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to ‘save’ these systems, or most of the people who just aren’t aware or capable enough to wean themselves off them. But those of us who want to be models of more independent, self-sufficient ways of living, I think the best approach is the same one nature uses to wean young wild creatures off their parents: play. Here’s some things we could play at:
- unschooling ourselves and our children
- natural entrepreneurship: learning how to make a living for ourselves, doing what we’re meant to do
- walking and cycling, instead of using energy-inefficient vehicles
- taking charge of our own health: prevention, exercise, self-diagnosing, self-treatment
- living in community e.g. creating our own self-organized and self-managed community centres and other community-shared resources; looking after our own security and conveying important and actionable news and information among and between communities
- singing, playing instruments, acting, drawing, and participative non-competitive sports
- gardening and permaculture, eating a vegan diet (and learning to cook delicious meals for ourselves), learning to make our own clothes, learning to construct zero-net-energy, zero-waste buildings, learning to repair instead of replace, learning to buy less (and shop more carefully), and sharing instead of buying equipment
- practicing emergency preparedness in our communities, through simulations and table-top scenario planning exercises
Why “play”? Because play is all about learning by experiment, joyfully, and being fully open to outcome. In the greater scheme of things, our skunkwork efforts at reinventing a working, community-based culture are not going to change much. They are not scalable (trying to do things at a scale larger than what can be managed through local personal responsibility is part of what got us into this mess). Most of them will probably fail. But a few of them will succeed, spectacularly, and perhaps give the survivors of our crumbling civilization culture some ideas on how to do things better next time.
I’m starting to explore some of these, and I’ll be writing about some of my playful experiments in coming months.