Friday, February 12, 2010

Constant Battles: It Goes Without Saying

I’ve begun Steven LeBlanc’s Constant Battles. This is the book by the archaeologist from Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline suggested reading list. Brand quoted it to show that we -- not Gaia -- are imperiled by global warming.

LeBlanc shows archaeological examples of fortification, genocide, erosion, extinction, etc., demonstrating that warfare has been a human activity from forager times until today. He eliminates the idea of our ever having had an Edenic or noble-savage existence using examples of modern forager cultures, in which a quarter of the males die in combat, and the behavior of our nearest primate relatives, the chimps. His thesis is that the pattern is one of each population’s expanding beyond its range’s carrying capacity, then doing what it must -- conquest -- to survive. The existence of war is evidence to LeBlanc of life out of harmony with its environment: if people were fed and comfortable, there would be no incentive for war.

(Fuller, writing during the Cold War, said that the ideological battle between Communism and Capitalism was over whose strategy would best allocate scarce resources. Twenty or thirty years ago, I quoted this to a guy at a party, who reminded me of the religious war brewing between us and Islam. Maybe some zealots can go to war over religion, but most people’s faith isn’t that deep. They go to war over resources, and blame it on God.)

Population is the villain. LeBlanc talks about a Samoan chief, Sila, from his Peace Corps days. Sila complained that the fruit trees didn’t bear the way they did when he was young. For LeBlanc, the problem was that the same harvest needed to feed more people. Slow population increase is the problem. Survival becomes more difficult gradually. There are occasions when the difficulty becomes apparent abruptly, as in the case of natural disasters, but it’s pretty much the case of the frog slowly brought to boil.

I believe I’ll finish Constant Battles, but I didn’t really need to crack the book to say, “Of course!” Organisms move toward nutrients. Why should we be any different? But -- and here’s the ray of hope -- we are the organism that can see the pattern, and organize to avoid the painful parts.

Here's the deal with extinction. Species aren't bad or in the way of some divine plan. What happens is that they are adapted to certain conditions, then the conditions change. But maybe we can notice what's happening, and adapt on purpose to the new conditions.

It won’t be easy. As a species, we are adapted to the global economy, and every one of us -- excepting people like the Yanomamo and !Kung -- included. The people in Brazilian favelas have cell phones, I’m waiting for the bone to heal around an implant for the installation of my new, four thousand-dollar molar, and the hygienist told me she had seen people who have twenty-eight permanent prosthetic toofers. There are people whose immediate struggle for survival is so urgent that they can’t think of anything else, people who haven’t caught on to the Copernican Universe yet, and people with weird, cobbled-together weltanschuaungen, that would see this essay as rankest heresy. And there are villains and demagogues.

Still, there’s hope. The Garden of Eden, and you and I as noble savages, are in the future, not the past. And the alternative kind of sucks.

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