Monday, January 3, 2011

Beyond Civilization

Now that we are into the new year, I want to head back to my Survival Resources thread, but first, I want to ask: why are we interested in surviving? As in, what are we working toward? What are we surviving for?

Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn is a fascinating, thought-provoking, infuriating book. I agree with the basic thrust of what the author is saying and disagree with many parts. It is definitely worth reading, particularly if you are thinking about where to go beyond this capitalist, hierarchical, industrial society. Quinn subtitles his book, 'Humanity's Next Great Adventure'.

He is particularly taken with Richard Dawkin's book, The Selfish Gene, and his idea of memes. A meme is a concept or belief which is a social/cultural building block that has a life of its own. Daniel Quinn believes that what keeps civilization going is a bunch of memes, which include "Civilization must continue at ANY cost and must not be abandoned under ANY circumstance.", "Ours is the one RIGHT way for people to live and everyone should live like us.", and "Civilization is humanity's ULTIMATE invention and can never be surpassed." To counter these, he proposes a different meme, "Something BETTER than civilization is waiting for us." (I like this--it reminds me of "Another world is possible.")

Although Quinn says clearly "There is no one right way for people to live", he also clearly advocates living tribally, saying that this is the way that human beings haved lived for millions of years and that this works better than our current 'civilization'. He claims that the Maya, the Olmec, the Hohokam, and the Anasazi all tried some version of civilization and then abandoned it. He sees tribalism as a 'social organization' which functions without hierarchy--which is something that I find very appealing. He also sees most circuses (especially the small ones) as an example of a tribal organization. His definition of a tribe is "A tribe is a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living." (I think this definition might surprise some hunter-gatherers who might not think that 'making a living' was their reason for working together--or living together.)

I like Daniel Quinn's unorthodox approach to homelessness: instead of rousting the homeless out of makeshift refuges and into 'shelters' that don't work for most of them, we should 'Let them house themselves'. (A great line: "Don't try to drive the homeless into places we find suitable. Help them survive in places they find suitable.") Quinn also sees allowing the homeless to flourish in an environment of their choosing as "the first great movement of people to that social and economic no man's land I call 'beyond civilization'."

One of the things that makes this book both easy to read and more than a bit disconcerting is the fact that it is divided into page long little sections, a lot of which gradually unfold ideas, a bit at a time and rather chaotically. But, as it unfolds, there is a lot of useful stuff in this book.

On the other hand, Daniel Quinn seems to have an antipathy for 'communes' (which is, as anyone who has read a bunch of this blog would know, a particular passion of mine). He claims that "Yes, a commune can definitely be a tribe; it's just a problematic way to begin." This is because Quinn's definition of 'a tribe' is about making a living. Using this definition he says "it will be luck rather than design if they actually have some occupational interests and skills in common." He also rejects the idea of the Amish as a tribe because "If you apply for membership, they'll be much more interested in your religious beliefs and your moral character than in your agricultural ambitions." It's not that I don't think that there can be tribal businesses such as circuses (I think that Mr. Quinn is on target there) but I don't think that's the only way to build a tribe, anymore than there's one right way to live.

Still, for those who want to build something new, 'a World that Works for Everyone', this is an important read. Now back to Survival Resources.

Quote of the Day: "Daniel Quinn teaches that no single person is going to save the world. Rather (if it's saved at all), it will be saved by millions (and ultimately billions) of us living a new way." - Daniel Quinn


CrackerLilo said...

It sounds like a book I'd disagree with quite often, but also find intriguing. I especially like his idea about homelessness as you present it. So many well-intentioned people treat homeless adults like small children, at best.

MoonRaven said...

That's perceptive--we need to start treating the homeless, and indeed everyone, as though they knew best about themselves.

Thanks for your comment. There is lots to disagree with in this book, but lots to think about as well.

Turil said...

Yeah, having been homeless, and possibly likely to be homeless again soon, I have to point out that homelessness is primarily caused by bad/anti-human policies, rather than anything else people seem to think. Making it illegal to sleep/camp in public places is the number one anti-human policy that causes homelessness right off the bat. And the idea of land "ownership" is another primary cause, of course. Think about native cultures all over the world who normally move around a region, setting up their community wherever was most practical given the season and their food needs. That kind of lifestyle is illegal now, even though it's a perfectly healthy and reasonable way for humans to live. And the idea that some people are allowed to horde land while others have none is so bizarre. And, of course, the idea that public land is not usable by the public for real human needs, such as non-permanent shelter and food, is just silly. And other, more complicated laws such as zoning and property taxes and building codes and home insurance requirements all make it even harder to build shelter (temporary or permanent) legally even when one does have land. (And in my case, stupid things like country borders and discriminatory immigration policies and bad divorce court judges mean that I can't even consider living on the land I did legally buy in Nova Scotia).

So yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to society moving past this odd "nation state" form of government and into a more local~global government of networked tribes with fewer dinosaur laws coming down from above, and more flexible and independent grassroots type support coming from below. :-)

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for your comment, Turil. I think you are on target about both the camping issue, and even more about the issue of land 'ownership'. There is something wrong with the idea that we can carve out a piece of the sacred earth and declare that 'It's mine!' Equally bizarre to me is the idea that governments can do this as well, to huge chunks of the earth.

I like the idea of society moving past 'nation-states' and into networked tribes. Unfortunately, I don't think it's going to happen in the next few decades.