a review of
The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization: The Seed of the Future, William Kotke, 401 pp., Arrow Point Press, Portland OR, 1993, $20 (available from FE Books at $15.
Where I live, with family and friends, is far from Detroit, far from the big city. We are located in a mountain valley in British Columbia about an hour’s drive from the mighty Fraser River.
Our home is still in a wild condition. Winters, you find cougar tracks in the snow on the hillside above the cookshack. Deer, mountain goat and mountain sheep, grouse, squirrel, eagle, even the occasional wolf, is sighted during the year. Bears come around, though seldom. Grizzlies forage in the alpine country. Coyotes ring out their mad laughter any time of day or night, and at this very moment, if I stop typing, I hear ravens conversing in the ponderosas.
We are surrounded by the remnants of a wilderness, but we are not unaware of the workings of the Machine. Always a chainsaw drones somewhere in the distance. Jet planes fly overhead. While I write this morning, logging trucks roll by on the dirt road throwing dust high in the blue air. They carry on their backs the corpses of our forest land, one grove at a time. For 150 years the riches of this place have been sacked—furs and trophy heads, gold, salmon, and now trees. Invader civilization is no less conspicuous in the back country than in the city center. This is why it is not inappropriate for me to review The Final Empire for an audience based in Detroit.
In any case, I want to tell you about William Kotke’s book. I feel sure it will appeal to readers of the Fifth Estate because it focuses on that important, recurrent theme, the Problem of Civilization.
William Kotke first came to my attention through an article entitled “Earth Diet, Earth Culture: How Much of the Planet’s Life Does Your Cadillac Cost?,” FE #325, Spring, 1987. That excellent article, so apt as an essay on bioregionalism, later appeared in Home! A Bioregional Reader, its subject was the San Francisco River watershed in New Mexico, a place I always associate in my mind with the author. See a review in “Bioregionalism: A Sense of Place,” FE #339, Spring, 1992.
The Evils of Civilized Society
However, as a roving thinker in the alternative movement, Kotke has since moved to Portland, Oregon, where his book was published by Arrow Point Press. To my delight, I find an expanded version of “Earth Diet, Earth Culture” in the second half of The Final Empire. Judging from the variety of topics summarized in his book, I’ve no trouble guessing what the man’s been doing with his time; he’s been busy at scholarship, he’s been researching and studying up and piecing together a world view. The result can be described as encyclopedic. I doubt that many readers will set out from the beginning and plow straight through to the end. Because the articles stand as independent essays, the book lends itself to short readings followed by thought and discussion.
The Final Empire is divided into two main parts, plus a good deal of framing material providing context. The first half is entitled “The Collapse of Civilization” which sets forth the evils of civilized societies past and present from an ecological/ social point of view. Here are chapters on deforestation, over-population, cultural genocide, pollution, industrial agriculture, etc., all familiar as categories of concern to Fifth Estate readers. When The Final Empire was placed before me, I resisted these chapters at first, and with good reason. I was reading Noam Chomsky’s The Year 501: The Conquest Continues. Already bewildered by the violence afoot in the world, I was in need of recovery. Happily, I found it was possible to read through “The Collapse of Civilization” without falling into depression. Despite the assumption that I knew all about these global “realities,” I came out thankful for the review, and learned a lot. For me, the two chapters on Modern Colonialism were particularly informative, along with its five-page bibliography. Passing facts struck me to the quick—for instance, that up to fifty million African people were enslaved between the 15th and 19th century.
The second half of The Final Empire, “The Seed of the Future,” constitutes the optimistic part of the book. It is taken for granted that the empire of the Megamachine will collapse. It will inevitably fall. Because it has brought the world to the brink of extinction, it can be thought of as “final.” The theme of the second part is, quite logically, Restoration. Due to the degradation of ecosystems, restoration work is what we can expect to be busy pursuing in the future. After the soil-consuming debacle of this century, food-producing ecologies will need to be brought back to health. Food will continue to be a central concern.
A permacultural view emerges in “The Seed of the Future.” Its practical strategies for survival are entirely appropriate to our situation and have been worked out, from native and non-native sources, precisely to answer the dilemma of reinhabiting damaged environments. Permaculture offers an empirically derived set of approaches for going with the flow of nature in specific types of land, wet or dry, hot or cold, and is anything but dreamy or foolishly utopian. Its principal advocate is Bill Mollison (of Tasmania), who has put together a basic text entitled Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future—a magnificent tome that has been of use to us in this community for dry land agriculture. As the book advertises itself, permaculture (permanent agriculture) “is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems…a philosophy and an approach to land use which weaves together micro-climate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, water management, and human needs into intricately connected and productive communities.”
Withdraw from Dependency
To restore balance with nature and each other, then, it is perceived that we will be involved in recreating regional, small-scale societies or cultures, which will carry out the collective adapting to place. There were thousands of such cultures before the rise of civilization and there can be again. Many groups of people in North America and elsewhere are already taking steps to withdraw from dependency on the Machine. Kotke cites examples like the folks in the region of the Mattole watershed in Northern California, known for their restoration work and their original sense of community, and Findhorn, an intentional community in Scotland.
“To be actively mobilizing toward setting up what might be called ‘seed’ communities is the really significant action,” Kotke says. “If people don’t actually get out of the money economy to a significant degree, if they don’t create a new land-based culture that aids the earth, all the other political and environmental efforts will ultimately be meaningless.”
The author does not give a great many cogent examples of budding self-reliant communities that have sprung from the civilized condition. Inspiration and example come to us from tribal peoples. As mentioned before, the customs and habitat of the people of the San Francisco River watershed are treated at length, including maps, interesting pictures and drawings that characterize the place. Philosophical discussion leads up to these chapters with themes like “The Principles of Life,” “Culture as Organism,” and “The Life of the Tribe.”
The reason Kotke doesn’t cite many intentional communities who are outstanding, who have matured, is that there aren’t any “whole” ones around. The time is not ripe for actual cultures to have emerged from the malaise of atomized society. This does not mean there aren’t many reinhabitants in our world. Existing in formative states, alternative peoples with the necessary vision of small-scale cooperative societies are scattered all over North America. I can say this much from personal knowledge. Yes, we are a scattered tribe, but we are here nevertheless: we exist.
I am a member of a “seed” community. Although my people are moving along the path to independence from the machine, eventually from the money economy, admittedly we have a good ways to go. At the same time, we are no more behind schedule than others. The problems we encounter center on the business of getting along with each other in the course of everyday life. This is not exactly an economic problem; neither is it entirely apart from economics.
For those who try the path of community, it will be discovered how deeply we have been conditioned to the habits of individualism, making close organization hard to maintain. The act of establishing firm human relationships reveals how thoroughly “modern” we actually are, how uprooted and fragmented in our characters. Going beyond consumer society will take long-lasting patience. Much will depend, of course, on how pressed we become by necessity. And much will depend on keeping alive the flame of social consciousness.
At least many of us can say that we’ve journeyed a great distance from our former selves and situations. For sure we have departed from what we were supposed to have become. Fortunately, experience is building up with us and the awareness of utopian alternatives is spreading among the generations now growing towards adulthood.
Thinking back as far as the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, it does not seem long ago that some people of my background, namely white and middle-class, woke up from their childish dreams and their nightmares, and became aware of who they are in a planetary picture. We don’t come from angels, as my parents liked to suppose. We are earthlings. We are animals. We are a form of primate, a kind of ape that stood upright and learned to talk. Humans evolved in small societies—bands of 25 to 50 members—tightly organized and intimately familiar with their home places. The evolution of cultures and the evolution of humans are one and the same process.
So, a story is emerging in our time. It might be called the Alternative Story (compared with His-story), or the Story of Freedom, or the Story of the People, and William Kotke is only one of its messengers. The story has drama because of its enormous importance, and because the outcome is unsure. Regarding the notion of a Final Empire, the story begins with the rise of civilizations, when free-roaming tribal folks were conquered and subjected, losing their native customs, losing their indigenous, finely-balanced cultures of place, and coming under the domination of distant, usually urban, centers, themselves commanded by ruling elites.
For ten thousand years, human beings and their cultures have been falling under the heels of civilizations. Not only humans: all of life is falling under the heels of the world-managers. At present, great numbers of people are waking up to the actualities of our situation. We see what has happened. We see we have lost balanced relations with nature, and we see we have lost our culture and the vitality, the happiness of self-governing societies. In this knowledge lies our hope. We cannot expect to go back to the ways of broken down cultures in broken down ecosystems. We will push forward with the creation of new cultures, with ourselves, our partial characters and situations: the materials of re-construction.
In the great alternative story, it is believed that the people will succeed. People will go on to take back control of their lives, make secure their relationships with nature and each other, to become whole again.
Meanwhile, the Transition. As Kotke puts it, “We are embarking upon a transformative course, the inversion of the values of empire”—from mechanical societies to ecological societies of human scale, from invader civilizations to nurturant cultures. Ever practical in his thinking, Kotke offers us a reliable indicator of our success as society-builders: “When communities exist at the top of watersheds and water running from them downhill, is pure, then we know that a cosmically resonant human social pattern exists.”
Ho! Here comes another logging truck roaring into view. Too bad. I tell you, we’d better get on with our world-building while the time is ripe.
Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada
— excerpted from The Final Empire
In order to retain our sense of reality, it is necessary for us to look briefly at where we are in our understanding of food producing, so that we can appreciate the tremendously valuable advice of the elders, even if we and the anthropologists can only glimpse the larger outlines of it. Civilized agriculture is war with the spirit of life and war with “Bumblebee”—Patrick Dungate the cosmos. Agriculture is an effort to force the simplicity and unbalance of the “ten world food plants” on the cosmos.
When the climax ecosystem is cleared for agriculture, the earth seeks by all means at its disposal to heal the wound. It sends in the first aid crew to revegetate the area and cover the poor oxidizing and eroding, bare soil. If life finds some unnatural abundance of exotic plants there, like soybeans or designer flowers, it calls in all of the species of fungus, micro-organisms and insects that can eat up that sickly or unnatural life and reconvert it back into the life stream.
What this means is, that it takes energy to fight life which is making an effort to rebalance itself. To do this requires fertilizers, poisons, petroleum, steel mills, agricultural universities, polluted waters, dead seas and on and on. When technicians look at a swidden plot in a rainforest and compare its productivity to a farm field and talk of how the “natives” might increase the productivity of the swidden plot to “help” them achieve some surpluses to sell so that they can exist on the margins of the money economy, what we are really looking at is trying to help them get some money so that they too can help poison and kill.
Native cultures are organic formations on the earth, they are not intellectual/ideological groups. We cannot expect that they understand the moral history of the steel axe and we cannot fault them for their “absurd truthfulness” and inability to refuse the invaders’ statement that there is a better way than the one they have always used. The historical corruption of natural culture has not been a contest of force between two groups but simply injury to organic cultural form, the same as a climax ecosystem is deformed by the bulldozer.
A system whose purpose is to extort surpluses from the soil requires a fight against nature, usually in the form of mono-cropping, and that all important pattern of empire-simplification and control. Our interest is in an entirely different perspective, an inverse perspective. Complexity, not immediate explosions of production is desired. Stability, fertility and diversity should constantly increase. When people are released from the extortion/profit motive in agriculture then the latitude for creative abilities are released and the scope of possibilities increases tremendously.
Some hints from the elders about an inverse method of producing food will be gained. Producing food by adaptation to the balance of life is the inverse of modern agriculture. While looking at the techniques of the elders, it will be kept in mind that, creating culture for ourselves that envelops the practices that we create for our watersheds is a simultaneous necessity.
FE Note: William Kotke’s The Final Empire is available from FE Books for $15 plus postage (see bookstore page). Also, Kotke’s publisher, Arrow Point Press, P.O. Box 14754, Portland OR 97214, carries a list of other titles on related themes, including those on the technique of Permaculture.