Sunday night I was driving home from Cincinnati and listening to Coast to Coast AM as I drove. The man being interviewed was named something like John Suzer, but I’m not sure of the spelling of his last name. He said he was an anarchist, and his take on the modern world was interesting. He’s generally anti-technology: he says that technology is supposed to fix all our problems, but that a good many problems are CAUSED by technology; that technology is supposedly neutral, but isn’t; that we feel we have to continue down the technological path even though it’s causing us great harm. Some of the harm he cites is pollution and drug-taking, the latter of which most Americans (at least) need to get through the day. So far, so plausible. Pollution is certainly an immense problem, and Americans don’t just take illegal drugs. They take all kinds of legal ones too. Not just tranquilizers and anti-depressants, vitamins, and supplements, but alcohol, tobacco and sugar. I should know, I’m an American too.
But then he starts talking about violence, and how we shouldn’t have to need police to keep people from being violent. But then, he adds, in our present situation, police are needed. If someone is elderly, for instance, and lives in or visits the wrong part of town, they need to be able to call the police to protect themselves. So his assumption is that anarchism works if the population is less. He doesn’t say how we get to low population, and I can hardly imagine it’s going to happen without catastrophe. The number of people in the world I’ve been hearing for some years is 7 billion, but my brother said it’s now 9 billion. An awful lot of people are going to have to decide not to reproduce if we’re going to reduce population nonviolently, and I don’t see that happening.
Then it turns out that his assumption that a less populous world will be less violent is also flawed. Stephen Pinker has statistics to show that we’re actually in the least violent period of history, as far as we can tell. That seems pretty hard to believe, especially with all the violence of the last century; but, says Pinker, that’s because we haven’t looked closely at any other centuries. In the 19th century there were the Napoleonic wars, the American Civil War, numerous colonial wars (including our own wars against the Indians), the Zulus in South Africa, etc. The wars weren’t quite as large-scale, but they were big enough. And there has been a consistent drop in violence that’s not war-related too, he says. The murder rate in this country now is almost the lowest in our history, surpassed only by the later 1950s.
Why has there been relatively less violence? And it is only relative, of course. He cites Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau as providing the opposite viewpoints in the 18th century: Hobbes opinion was that in the “state of nature” life was “nasty, brutish and short.” Rousseaus’s was that nature is kind, and man is not. Humans have the potential to be kind, but often aren’t, but nature often isn’t either. There have always been natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, fires, floods, famines, etc. Hobbes’ point (reiterated by Camille Paglia in Sexual Persoanae) is that society is created to protect us from nature. Nature can be bountiful in both good and bad ways, from the human viewpoint. And anthropologists, who have sometimes been romantic about primitive life, have been discovering that there’s a lot of murder in primitive societies, as well as warfare. So it seems that Hobbes’ view was more accurate than Rousseau’s.
So why have we become less violent, to the extent that we have? Pinker thinks one reason is the modern state: feuding is discouraged by law enforcement. If a policeman will arrest someone who’s trying to do violence to you, your family, or tribe, there’s less need to do something about it yourself. A lot of people won’t like that formulation, if they’re in favor of less government, and they won’t be entirely wrong, but if the choice is between more government or more violence, many will opt for more government, which doesn’t make government entirely good, but maybe preferable.
Pinker suggests another factor is that civilization means meeting people other than your family and subculture. When you do, you’re less likely to be xenophobic or moralistic, and more likely to make accomodations to people strange to you. Literacy may also be a factor, in that through reading you can get an insight into how others think and feel, so that you sympathize with them rather than immediately condemning them.
Pinker reminds us that this is a trend, and that it may not continue. Individuals and small groups can get access to weapons of mass destruction, which can put a large bump in the statistics, for one thing. He suggests that famines may not be that productive of violence, but Jared Diamond, inCollapse, disagrees with him, saying that countries with severe ecological problems are also the ones with severe political problems, which usually means violence. I don’t think Suzer is wrong in condemning unrestrained technology in terms of both pollution and in making machines to do for us what we could just as well do for ourselves. In talking about smartphones, for instance, he mentions an app that will tell you what your baby wants when he or she cries. That’s something humans should be able to figure out for themselves, without needing technology to help them.
So humans continue to bumble on, doing better in some ways, and worse in others. Unfortunately, we have a lot of problems coming our way in which bumbling may not be very productive. Pollution, and its results is a very severe problem. Diamond outlines a number of ecological problems, and recounts stories of several past societies that failed to solve them. But he also tells stories of several that did. One is Japan, which, in the 17th century, was well on its way to becoming deforested. One of the shoguns of the time decided to change that, and Japan now may be the most forested of any First World country. Another was a small island in the Pacific Ocean, which was well on its way to ecological catastrophe, but decided to get rid of its pigs, even though pigs were a status symbol in that culture. Iceland was a third example, where the colonizers initially treated the land as they would have in Europe, found that didn’t work, so found ways to at least prevent environmental degradation from getting worse. The lesson seems to be that we CAN make positive changes if we really want to. The question is always whether we really want to.
An article in Sojourners magazine points this up. It talks about the popular books, movies and TV shows about vampires, and how some of them recently have been portraying vampires who find blood repulsive, even as they depend on it for life. They find ways of getting blood differently, taking it only from willing donors, for instance, and never too much; or stealing it from bloodbanks. That takes discipline, and discipline isn’t a bad thing. The author of the article says that vampirism has often been seen as a metaphor for deviant sexuality, but it might better be seen as a metaphor for our economic behavior. In a sense, we all are vampires, since we all depend on other forms of life to live ourselves. Among so-called primitive peoples there has often been a tradition of veneration for nature, and only taking from the natural world what you really need. That’s a tradition that hasn’t been honored too much in the modern world, though more people have begun to at least think along those lines in past decades. But society in this country in particular is built on exploiting nature, and we’re beginning to see that that form of behavior doesn’t work so well. When we destroy other forms of life out of greed, our lives eventually get more difficult because the foundation for it is going or gone. At that point we don’t have a lot of comfortable choices, but eventually we’ll have to make a choice whether or not to be vampires.